Hummingbirds

       “Rufous is back!” Blanche shouts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

       “A bit of wine’d be nice.”

       “You always say that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

       Blanche also used to think of it as remarkable.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

       “Blanche…Blanche… Where are you?”

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

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

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

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

       “Where’s Blanche?”

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

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

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

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

       “That she was,” Sally agrees.

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

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

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

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


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

Faster Than A Roller Coaster

       He’s perched on that red armchair, as usual. My Pierce. Surrounded by bird nests. Mud and twigs. Leaves and bark. Some are hanging from hooks in the ceiling, like purses. Orioles. And there are tidy little cups. Goldfinch, I think. He’s labeled some of the nests, the ones in glass cabinets; others are displayed on open shelves or falling apart on the scratched mahogany table his mother gave us. 

       “It’s after midnight,” I say.

       He smiles up at me. I love his white hair. Premature at forty-two. I love his face, unlined, pale, boyish. 

       “I need an owl,” he says.

       “Pay attention, Pierce. She’s sixteen and it’s after midnight.”

       But there she is, my Clare, racing up the hall toward us, her red hair half out of her ponytail, bursting into the room we call The Museum, where Pierce keeps his collections. 

       “I’m sorry.” She’s panting. “We went for ice cream.”

       “That’s no excuse.”

       “I said I was sorry.” She brushes past me and wraps her arms around Pierce’s neck. “Wayne wants to meet you, Daddy,” she says. “I told him you play the clarinet. He plays piano, plays for parties and stuff.”

       “What kind of piano?” Pierce asks.

       “Jazz,” Clare says. “And dancing music, like Elvis and Buddy Holly.” 

       “Concentrate, Pierce,” I beg. “She’s sixteen years old, coming in after midnight.” 

       He pauses, looking up at me like he hears me. Then, “I really need a Great Horned nest.” 

       Clare giggles. A late night, giddy sort of laugh.

       I give up. I love her. And she’s home.

~

       The first time it happened, I was just her age, a high school majorette from the wrong side of the tracks. And he was a short skinny boy in the band, with hair so blond it was almost white and skin so pale he looked anemic. I could feel his eyes on me as I twirled my baton; he was marching along behind, tootling away on his clarinet. 

       And then one day he just disappeared; he wasn’t in class, wasn’t in the band. People said he had gone to a ranch out west to build up his strength. Which made some sense because he was so pale. He was just a boy in the band then, not yet my sweetheart, but I missed him. And was glad when he came back to school, after a couple of months, with some sun on his face. 

       I found out all about it years later, after he stood up to his old bully of a rich daddy and married me, after he started filling up our apartment with butterflies. At first it seemed innocent enough. He knew all about nature, could whistle bird songs, could say what kind they were when nobody else could see them flitting about in the trees. He’d capture butterflies, pin them to stiff cardboard, put them in box frames with cotton. At first, it was just on Saturdays; he’d be out there tramping around in the woods with his binoculars and butterfly nets. Then it was early in the morning weekdays before work. I had my job as a secretary for Dr. Newman and didn’t pay much attention until butterflies started to take over the apartment. Our place was pretty small then, living room, kitchen, bedroom. And he just filled it up with butterflies, live ones wriggling in nets, dead ones, wings all sorts of colors, plus caterpillars, dead and alive. Strange smells all over the house. He hung glass-framed butterflies on all the walls, filled the shelves with messy, broken cocoons. Pretty soon heaps of wings covered the coffee table, the top of the refrigerator, the kitchen cabinets. 

       And then Pierce stopped, like he had wound down. He just sat in the middle of all that mess, staring at nothing, hardly talking.

       I didn’t know what to do; I was afraid to tell his parents. Afraid they’d blame me. They found out anyway because he stopped going to the Mill, where his dad had gotten him a job. So late one afternoon, old man Pierce burst in, took one look at the mess, and the next thing I knew, he carried my beautiful boy husband off in an ambulance. 

       That’s when I found out it had happened before. It was a nervous breakdown, at least that’s what his dad called it. They took him to a hospital down in North Carolina and put wires on the sides of his head and shocked him into getting better. His parents told folks he was traveling for business. 

       I’d done a lot of growing up before I ever married Pierce, keeping house for my hard-drinking daddy, getting myself a scholarship to secretarial school. But this was the worst. Pierce was the only person I’d ever loved except my mother who died when I was six. I loved his blunt fingers, his narrow body, the smell of starch his plaid shirts gave off, his sweet breath. I worried I had somehow brought on his sickness and I was scared out of my mind. 

       While he was gone, his parents bought us this house and moved me in. His mother told me she couldn’t stand the idea of Pierce coming back to that tiny apartment where he’d had his breakdown.  But the new place felt large and empty without him. And I was so lonely. I visited him several times before they decided to shock him, but that was worse than the loneliness. He just sat in a chair in his hospital room and stared at the TV.  It didn’t matter what the program was. He just stared at it. I couldn’t get him to talk or even look at me. It was awful. I thought he didn’t love me anymore. 

       It didn’t last forever. He came home and was his old self. Playing his clarinet, collecting, bird nests this time, but in an organized way in his “Museum.” 

       Then Clare was born. My girl. Named for my mother. And he’s been more or less okay ever since. He’s had his ups and downs, of course, and once, when Clare was little, he had to go back for a shock treatment. But he’s on a new medicine now and it’s going well. To Clare he’s the perfect father. She has no idea. And I want it to stay that way. 

~

       Wayne’s at the door. Polite as pie. He’s a good-looking boy. Six feet at least, floppy brown hair. Dark sleepy eyes. I see why Clare likes him. 

       “Where you off to, baby?” Pierce asks.

       “A party,” she says.

       “Where?”

       “Moose Club.”

       “No,” I say. The Moose Club is a lump of stucco, squatting on the edge of the river. The members are mostly rednecks, who shoot squirrel and rabbit and fancy themselves big game hunters.

        “Wayne’s playing for somebody’s engagement party,” she says.

       “I don’t like it,” I say. “There’ll be drinking and carrying on.”

       “I’ll come,” Pierce says.

       Clare grabs him round the neck. I stare at them.

       “I’ll be the chaperone. Don’t worry, honey.”

       It’s only after he’s climbed into the back seat of Wayne’s Plymouth that I catch a glimpse of his clarinet case on the seat next to him. 

       Pierce plays a beautiful clarinet. He studied in New York. All the classics, Flight of the Bumblebee, Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. That was before we married. He’d had his heart set on being a musician, but his old man put his foot down, said you can’t earn a decent living tootling on a horn. Sent him to work in one of the Mill offices, where he was president. I never knew what Pierce did exactly, only that he didn’t like it. When the old man died, he left us enough money for Pierce to stop going to the Mill. He mostly stayed home and played his music and worked on his collections. 

       I wash the dinner dishes and pick up the Ladies Home Journal. But I can’t concentrate. Partly, because I’ve got that Moose Club on my mind. But I also keep seeing the clarinet case on the back seat of Wayne’s car. Pierce never plays in public, just has a friend or two come over occasionally to jam, as he calls it. He’s a snob, really, about his music. So I’m thinking, if he’s planning to play his clarinet tonight, I want to hear it.  After about a half hour, I put on my coat and back the Oldsmobile out of the garage. 

       I’ve seen the Moose Club from the outside all my life but never had reason to go in. I open the door to a barn-like room full of crêpe paper streamers with big red cardboard hearts stapled to them and lots of loud music. Men in shirt sleeves and loosened ties are bouncing around with women done up in taffeta party dresses, blues and greens mostly, with full skirts out of net and black suede high heels. I recognize some of the patients from Dr. Newman’s office, where I work, but they’re too busy dancing to say hello. Besides, I’m looking all around for Clare and Pierce. 

       Wayne’s up on a stage, banging away at the piano, a Buddy Holly tune I recognize, and laughing and talking to the dancers. Then, in a flash, he turns his head toward somebody in the band and starts nodding. And that’s when I see Pierce. Up on the stage with all those boys. His eyes are closed, his square-tipped fingers are flying over the keys, and his head is swaying, all in perfect time with the guitars and piano. His face so serious. And Wayne’s laughing and nodding. 

       After a minute or two people stop dancing and stand around the band watching Pierce, clapping to the beat, and belting out, “Going faster than a roller coaster.” And there’s Clare, up in front of the crowd, snapping her fingers with the others, her mouth moving. Pierce keeps playing that tune like it’s the most natural thing in the world. When did he ever hear about Buddy Holly? The guitar player is grinning at him, and the short, skinny boy on banjo stops strumming long enough to let Pierce play solo. I push through the crowd, singing along with the rest of them, bumping into people, stepping on suede-covered toes. Trying to join my daughter. Getting the feel of it.

       The clapping gets louder and louder. I see Wayne turn back to the piano. He tries a few chords but can’t connect with Pierce’s solo, so he stops and waits. I look at Pierce.  His eyes are still closed, but now, instead of swaying to the rhythm, his whole body’s jerking around. Buddy Holly is long gone. I have to reach Clare. Her eyes are fixed on her father, her cheeks are bright red, and she’s stamping her feet with the beat. But the beat keeps changing and the tune seems to be lost. The noise in the room is getting louder. Pierce keeps on playing, faster and faster. 

       I don’t know what to do. 

       It’s Wayne who saves him. He picks up the microphone, walks over to Pierce and thanks him in a voice that drowns out the music. Pierce stops playing and looks around, like he’s surprised. 

       Wayne says, “Well, folks, we’ve had a real treat here. Let’s give a hand to the best woodwind player in the state of Virginia, Mr. Pierce Luther, Jr.” He puts his arm around my husband’s thin shoulders; Pierce gives a sideways grin and the two of them take a low bow.

       “Thank you, Sir,” Wayne says and walks him over toward me and Clare.

       “What d’you think?” Pierce is beaming.

       “Time to go,” I say. 

       “No!” Clare says.

       “Your Mom’s right.” Wayne puts his arms around Clare and Pierce, one on each side, and walks them to the door, with me following close behind.

       “Thank you,” I mutter, but he’s gone, winding his way through the crowd, back to his piano. 

       On the way home Clare bounces around in the front seat next to me, talking a mile a minute.

       “What about Dad’s solo?” 

       “It was great. Most of it,” I say. At least that’s honest.

       “Maybe my improvising was a bit sophisticated for the boys, huh?” Pierce chimes in from the back seat.

       “Sounded like you were improvising on Mozart,” I say.

       “That wasn’t Mozart. That was jazz.”

       “He was riffing on Buddy Holly,” Clare says. “You’re too tone deaf to hear it.” 

       I let it go.  Maybe this isn’t what I think it is.

~

       “Quick! What’s the bird?”

       It’s early on Saturday morning, a week after the Moose Club dance, and Pierce is peering through binoculars out the kitchen window, chirping: Here I am-- in the tree-- look up-- at the top. 

       “Red-eyed Vireo.” Clare’s answer is quick, automatic. She butters her toast, half asleep. 

       “Bingo!” Pierce has drilled those bird songs into her from the time she learned to talk. “Get dressed. Today’s the day.” 

       She’s wide-awake now, binoculars in one hand, toast in the other, heading for the door. She’s spent her childhood tramping the woods around Spotswood with her daddy, listening for bird songs, inspecting the forest floor for the telltale white splashes that might mean a nest, scrambling up oaks and elms and maples, easing the empty nests out of the tree limbs and carrying them home in a wicker basket lined with velvet. Whenever there are eggs, they wait until they’re sure the nest is empty before making the snatch. I know all this because I went collecting with him before she was born. And I still occasionally go along, just to watch the two of them conspiring together, standing silent in the woods, waiting. I wait with them. Holding my breath. 

       This Saturday, I watch him closely. Ever since the party at the Moose Club, I’ve felt kind of uneasy. So I call out, “Me too. I’m coming too.”

       Pierce heads the Dodge pickup south on Route 29. About thirty miles out of Spotswood, he swerves suddenly onto a dirt road. We bump along for several miles, red dust flying up in all directions, coating the windows.

       “Where’re you going?” 

       He laughs, a giddy sort of laugh.

       And then he hits the brakes, jumps out of the car, and starts running.

       “It’s up there,” he says, training his binoculars toward the top of a hill alongside the road. “Let’s go.”

       He’s running, up the base of the hill, kicking up red dust and brown pine needles. 

       By the time I get out of the car, he’s a third of the way up the hill, hanging on to roots, a cotton mesh bag slung over his shoulder.

       I look at the top of the hill through my binoculars. And there it is, on a low branch of a tree. A huge nest made of different size sticks with leaves spilling out the top. An owl’s nest. 

       Pierce is inching up the hillside, grabbing roots, resting one foot at a time on rocks half-buried in the red dirt.

       I call out in as calm a voice as I can manage, “Be careful, Pierce.” 

       And then he’s on the top of the hill, arms waving in triumph.

       I look over at Clare. Her cheeks are bright. And she’s grinning up at her daddy. We watch Pierce stretch his hand up to the nest and carefully place it in the mesh bag. Then he starts scrambling down the hill.

       In a flash, a Great Horned Owl swoops out of the air, claws outstretched. Clare and I race to the car. The mother lands on the branch of the tree where her nest was, screeching and screeching. 

       “Turn the motor on,” Pierce yells as he half runs, half slides down to the bottom of the hill, binoculars swinging wildly around his neck, the bag held out beside him. He dives into the front seat of the car, slamming the door just as the owl dive-bombs, crashing into the window beside him. For a split second, the bird glares in at us with large yellow eyes, then drops out of sight.

       “Drive!” Pierce yells.

       “Is she hurt?” Clare’s voice is high pitched.

       “Of course not,” he says. “That bird is flying through the pine trees right now, swooping down on mice.” He makes a perfect imitation of an owl’s haunting call. 

       I want to scream at him, “It’s not true. You know it’s not true.” But there’s Clare. 

       “You think so?” she asks. She wants to believe.

       Back home, Pierce sweeps two robins’ nests aside to make space on the mahogany table for his latest prize.

       “Look at the inside.” Clare’s voice is hushed. 

       I look down at downy feathers. The mother owl must have plucked them from her own breast. And there’s squirrel fur in here. And then I see them. Two white perfectly formed eggs are resting on a cross hatch of downy feathers. 

       “What have you done?” I whisper.

       Clare stares at her father. “We’re not supposed to take eggs.” She sounds close to tears.

       “I didn’t see them.” Pierce looks sheepish. 

       I don’t believe him. I quickly put my arm around my daughter. “Even the experts make mistakes, honey,” I say. “I’m sure your dad thought the nest was old.”

       Pierce smiles and nods.

~

       Now that nesting season is in full swing, Clare is up early on Saturdays, out all day with her father, armed with binoculars, telescope, Sibley’s, sandwiches. They come home after dark, exhausted, her cheeks flushed. She talks all through dinner, hardly eating anything. They’re watching nests and the hatching of babies, red-tailed hawks, robins, cardinals. It’s June; the woods are full of song. 

       I watch Pierce, but he seems calm, happy. Clare wants to be with him, that’s all he needs. I tell myself, relax. 

       The owl’s nest sits there in the middle of the mahogany table, large, messy, the eggs stone cold. 

~

       “Mama!” It’s Clare’s voice. Coming from Pierce’s collections room. 

       I rush down the hall. The door is open. Mud and twigs, leaves and bark, thick on the floor, stop me. 

       Pierce is standing near the door. He looks at me, mouth open, eyes searching mine. I realize I’ve been expecting this. For weeks now. I’ve got to get her out of here before . . . 

       Then I see her. Her shoes are muddy and her sweater’s torn. She’s smiling, and for just one minute, I hope everything’s going to be all right. 

       But there’s something in her hands, something she’s holding tight against her chest.

       “It’s my surprise,” she says.  Her eyes are bright, her voice high-pitched, excited.  “It’s because of the raccoons. Don’t you see? I had to. The raccoons.” 

       “Clare,” I speak softly. “Sweetheart?”

       “It’s okay, Mama,” she says, kicking at the pile of broken nests on the floor. “I just need a broom. It was too crowded in here. I had to make room. I just need a broom.”

       I reach for her. 

       She backs away. “Mama, where’s the broom?” 

       Fear hangs heavy. Weighs me down. Stops my breath. “Sweetheart,” I manage to whisper.

       “I need to sweep.” Her voice is frantic. “Look at all this mess.”

       But I’m not looking at the mess. I’m staring at the muddy fists she’s stretching out to me. A broken handle of a purse-like nest dangles from her thumb.

       She spreads open her fingers.

       I don’t want to look. I don’t want to know. I want to hold her. 

       “Aren’t they sweet, Mama? Aren’t they perfect?”

       Two pink featherless creatures lie limp in her hands, their tiny legs drawn up close to their bodies. 

About the Author, Nancy Bourne: Since retiring as an attorney for public schools, I have been teaching writing and composition to prisoners and incarcerated minors, making pottery in my home studio, and writing fiction. In addition to my November 2017 publication in Poydras Review, my stories have been published in Upstreet, The South Carolina Review, Summerset Review, Carolina Quarterly, Quiddity, Forge, Persimmon Tree, The MacGuffin, Thin Air, Bluestem Magazine, The Long Story, Shadowgraph, Steel Toe Review, Five on the Fifth and Ursa Minor. My work has also been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.

The Nanjing Bridge

It took a considerable time to walk to the Nanjing Bridge. Lizhu had taken the six am metro to the first station past the eastern bank and she had set off straight west towards the Yangtze. The stretch of road had been particularly long between yellow concrete apartment blocks from whose balconies the residents had hung their clothes and towels. The city fog was thick around the heights of these buildings, the upper floors disfigured in the soft rain. Those clothes would get wet and have to be dried again. Lizhu checked the map on her phone, thinking the river should be just at the end of the street but all she could see in the distance was a vaporous line of trees and high bushes.

     Getting closer she was reassured that the trees were a part of an artificial wetland that was being used as a levee for the river and turning the corner she saw a mile to the south there was the immense double-decked steel framework of the Nanjing Bridge. On the higher level struggled the white lights of morning traffic and then a cargo train swept and rattled along the lower level.

     She spent twenty minutes going down to the riverfront to reach the base of the bridge where the levee returned to being just a concrete slope.  It was quiet beneath the high din of the vehicles above; there were few other people about. There was only an old woman in a waterproof poncho and straw hat pulling out reeds from the banks and a pair of old men chatting who had disinterestedly left some fishing rods standing as they sat on their deck chairs on the levee slope.

     These men too, like Lizhu, had not bothered with a raincoat that day. At this point the bridge was at full height, its beginning planted deeper in the city, but Lizhu had assumed there would be a stairway that she could climb, but the door on the pillar was boarded shut with plywood. Lizhu went down the slope to ask the old woman how to get up to the bridge but she just stared blankly at her with her worn brown face and charcoal black eyes. 

     Lizhu went over to the old men, and they consulted each other, and they didn’t seem to want to tell her. They informed her that she’d have to follow the bridge all the way back to where it started if she wanted to go up as all the stairwells had been closed.

     She walked through a corrugated fence to walk along the underpass of the bridge. When the bridge was first built as the first major infrastructure project after the massacre and War of Resistance, they had clearly hoped this area below the bridge could be used as a gathering place or market; between each consecutive pillar of the bridge were two curved European style streetlamps whose glass had been long smashed.

     Every other stairway had been boarded up, but on a main pillar along a horizontal face that spanned the width of the bridge there was a double door. She couldn’t enter this, but did briefly consider the adjacent window; if she broke off a little more glass she could have fit through the gap. She did, however, peer inside to where there was a hallway with a twenty foot bronze statue of Chairman Mao smiling in front of a red banner. 

     She was surprised that they had let such a place get so dilapidated. Feeling a draught on her face she looked into the dank dark, filled with building refuse, and saw some stairs going around the back wall, but she decided even if she did this the door at the top would probably be locked. 

     A half hour later, clambering past a plastic dump to get onto the main roads, passing through multiple crossroads of the early morning traffic, she found the legitimate start of the bridge and started along its rising sidewalk. Even in all her repeated visions of this morning, she hadn’t expected it to be like this. The fog from down the Yangtze valley had submerged the other half of the bridge into grey wilderness, and Lizhu felt she was walking towards nothing.

     Beside the first towers on each side there were statues of revolutionary soldiers, glorious eagle-eyed proletariats brandishing rifles and holding high the Little Red Book. There were so many buses with glowing red bus numbers, 525, 536, 555, 525, one after the other, feeding packed hordes into the main city on the other side. 

Another thing that distracted her were that the scooters mainly drove on the sidewalk so she was regularly having to stand to one side when some man loudly beeped at her from behind. Lizhu tried anxiously to get a look at their faces, but then they would drive on pivoting past her and disappear off into the nothingness, their luminous ponchos of yellow or blue or red being the last things to fade from view.

     The bridge she walked on was now above the water, the wide river flowing from the west, melding with the city and sky, and many coal barges sailed beneath. Lizhu was considering the railing; if they really wanted to stop everyone jumping it would be so easy to make it taller. They should also change the grating, the lines of the pattern had a hole in the centre, inviting like a step. Yet Lizhu felt drained of pure horror; she tried to see the dark ceiling she had seen last night; the pain and humiliation that had been growing, twisting and scalding her, suddenly seemed a little less real.

     There was no relief though; she couldn’t face a return home. They had probably already found the note, maybe even called in to her office, where the moths had teemed along the long panels of electric lights, to tell Daixin that he’d be short a worker and would have to hire a replacement. There was to be no reference letter and prospects of future employment were now even worse. She hadn’t moved in ten minutes. She looked up and down the bridge and passing cars, buses and scooters and wondered who would stop her.

     Lizhu stared at the world’s largest river port, the container ships slightly more solid in the fog than the towering cranes which arched over the ships like bare winter trees. To test how she felt about it she put her first foot through the railing and lifted herself up. The wind of the drop blew up in her eyes and all she had to do was lean her weight forward. She waited for someone to pull her down but no one did. She turned and stared at the traffic, the drivers of the cars sparing her a glance, the children in the backseat gazing, only some of the people on the bus, fiddling with their phones and sleeping standing up, even took a second to notice her.

     Then she felt it again, the rejection, and the confusion, and the rage. She’d thought they were making efforts to stop jumpers. She thought about the stories about Chen Si, the Angel of Nanjing, an ordinary middle-aged man who had gained fame for taking it upon himself to drive up and down the Nanjing Bridge on his scooter, to try and stop the many jumpers from the world’s most popular suicide spot. He’d then take those he saved back to his shelter, and try and help them get back on their feet. 

     Yet no one was coming for her. She was nearly crying, leaning forward and holding herself up, the air getting painfully caught in her throat. She looked back at the traffic and watched it pass. Now there was a new shame and humiliation in standing here like a stain on society, a foul lack of discretion. The minutes piled up and she repressed a wail.

     It took so long that by the end she felt so hollow she didn’t at first notice the black muddy scooter pull up. The drizzle had gotten heavier and a stocky man with a bright yellow poncho hooded over a red baseball cap got off the scooter.  He made as if to grab her but he stopped awkwardly when she turned her head to him.

     ‘Do not jump. Do not jump. It is unnecessary.’ He didn’t sound entirely confident.

     ‘Are you Chen Si?’

     He was a man with a thick jaw and beaded eyes. He had the large dark hands of a laborer and they were reaching out to her. He was young though, no more than thirties. 

     ‘Yes, yes, I am Chen Si. Do not jump. You have only one life.’

     ‘You are not Chen Si.’

     His eyes were full of fear, but he smiled like a man who would not turn back.

     ‘No, I am Chen Si. Look you are getting wet; it is raining, come here.’

     He pulled her by the back of her jumper down as she fell limp. She felt broken and weak from the effort of staying still. Leading her by the shoulder he took out a radiant pink poncho from a bag on his scooter basket, and with some effort got it over her head, Lizhu being persuaded to put her arms through the correct holes.

     She got on the back of the scooter. She held him tightly and tried to bury her face in the back of his yellow poncho but he was breathing very quickly and she stopped and straightened her back. Suddenly she was passing through traffic again, weaving between cars, crossing the bridge into the wall of fog which started to recede. She had no idea where she was going or how time was still moving, every second counted by a breath of this man.

‘I will take you to a safe place where we can talk and then we will find out what is wrong.’ 

     They broke a left on the road, then slipped through some food stalls on a side street, the fruit covered by tarpaulin, then took another left to an ally attended by four local dogs, and into a narrow warren interlinking the thirty story high apartment blocks. She lost count of how many blocks deep they had gone; entering one through a black gate left open, he swept around the row of parked bikes and scooters and put his at the end.

     ‘Here we are. My home is on the sixteenth floor.’ 

     They went in, and stood silently in the dank elevator with a grey haired woman in sandals who left on the thirteenth floor. The man had to pull back a stiff metal grating on his front door and looked through a ring with several keys for the correct one. The room was typically sized and cheaply furnished, one small central room that was bedroom, living area and kitchen, and behind a small door to the side a closet of a bathroom. He was very nervous and he picked up a glass that had been left on the table by the couch and put it in the sink.

     ‘I’m very sorry, this place is a mess; I am sometimes too busy to keep it clean. The bathroom is there, you got very wet out on the bridge; you can use it if you like.’

     Lizhu noted that to herself that it seemed that the room had been recently cleaned. The glass had been the only thing out of place, everything else was put away and dusted, but she saw sauce stains on the tablecloth and yellow smoke marks on the venetian blinds that when combined with the smell beneath the air freshener made her think that this room was not in its natural state. She went into the bathroom and locked the door.

     It was one of those bathrooms without a shower curtain, but instead a sloped floor that allowed the water to flow down an open drain. She paused when she saw the fresh towel and soap waiting for her on the windowsill. She decided the best thing to do would just be to dry her hair with the towel. There was a comb, and she ran it a few times through her hair. She wasn’t the most beautiful woman, but her face was still youthful, and she thought with a twitch of disgust that she was probably the most beautiful, if not the only, woman this man had ever brought back here with him.

     ‘Sit down, sit down – are you hungry? You didn’t have a shower? I can get you fresh clothes if you like; they are men’s clothes but they are dry.’

     ‘No, I am okay thank you. I like my clothes.’

     ‘I suppose you must. Would you like tea? I have many flavors.’

     He proceeded to take out multiple boxes tea of and place them on the table in front of her. She eventually picked the Oolong tea.

     ‘Yes you are right that is my favorite.’ He had the kettle already boiled, and he poured out the tea. ‘Now you must tell me – we must fix this – why would you think of doing such a thing? What is this sadness that you have?’

     ‘Chen Si, it is strange, I thought when I had read about you before that you had been developing a shelter for the people you had saved?’

     ‘Oh oh, well a shelter is perhaps a too formal name for it. But yes, there is a place where some of the friends who I have brought back from the brink meet up and we talk about everything big and small. First though, my new friends come here and we fix everything.’

     ‘The article also said that you were an older man and that you had a wife.’

     ‘Har har, well perhaps I look older than I am? That must be a mistake. And no, I have never had a wife. That must be another mistake, maybe the reporter thought one of my friends was a wife.’

     ‘Reporters should be more careful. They must be bad reporters. They said that you lived with your two very elderly parents and they helped run the shelter.’

     The man took a sip of his tea and this returned some of the colour to his face which had been draining and turning ashen. For the first time so far he looked her in the eye intently and there was a new softness and firmness in his voice.

     ‘No that is not true. My parents are long gone. They were very good parents and they taught me well and I treated them well in return. But this is enough questions about me. I am well, you are not.’ He leant forward a bit now and his composure faltered as he became overcome with excitement and intensity ‘You are so special, why would you throw away what is so special? What has made you do this?’

     ‘I don’t particularly want to talk about this now. This is something that it hurts to talk about.’

     ‘But the time is now! If I didn’t stop you this time wouldn’t even be here.’

     Lizhu wondered how long he had been watching her, perhaps he could honestly not have seen that she had hesitated beyond the point where the task was impossible. Still, he was claiming himself as a savior that Lizhu did not feel he was.

     ‘No the time is over.’

     ‘No, the time is now! Even if you wish to hold the story secret at first, tell me about what you were feeling that made you want to do that.’

     This was received by a silence but his face was as rapt as a mask and she decided to try and appease him. ‘I have been feeling empty for a long time now. I have been foolish and cruel. People have stolen so much from me and there is no way to fix it. It gets worse by the second.’

     ‘That is where I shall prove you wrong, it gets better! I have helped so many I am certain that I can help you!’

     ‘You’ve never had anyone who can’t be helped? Who jumped as soon as you turned your back?’

     ‘Never! Well never anymore… there were one or two early on and I had not learnt fully how… But now I understand how I can help the best and in a way it has not only helped so many but it has also helped myself!’ He lifted himself from the chair and darted towards a cupboard in the kitchen unit. ‘Here, look, one of the men that I once saved was a brilliant young man doing Fine Art at Nanjing University. He was messed up because he hated his parents and was a failure in love. She had lied about their past together, turned what he thought was beautiful into a misshapen lie. I brought him here – and I told him very firmly that he was so special - and he cried and thanked me. I sat him here, gave him paper and paint, and he made all of these.’ 

     He produced a few sheets with watercolors. They were decent but somewhat sloppy, the effect of the greens in the tree beside the pond running into the sky might have been intentional, and there was one of a chrysanthemum whose petals were a pleasing light blue. Still, there were issues of perspective and clunkiness; if there was an art student, he could add lack of talent to the list of his woes. ‘Are these not wonderful pictures? Such a treasure that has been saved! And look at this intricate calligraphy at such a young age - he has all the nuance of a master!’ He pointed feverishly at the characters to the top-left of the chrysanthemum; they were hard to read, near illegible, but said To Chen Si, who saved my life.

     Lizhu was falling into tiredness, little able to cope with this man. She gazed into her teacup and hoped vaguely that it hadn’t been spiked somehow. ‘Yes, if you helped him then you have done a very noble thing.’

     This was exactly what he wanted to hear. ‘I don’t know about noble!’ he emphasised, brimming with delight, ‘But I do what I can and I hope that I can do the same for you.’ 

     Perhaps, thought Lizhu, saying that you are going to do something and repeating that claim incessantly is some modern tactic of psychology. Maybe the man is a genius. Regardless, she suppressed a yawn but could not supress the second; her eyes and mind were growing heavy. It was probably safe for now, he didn’t seem so bad really. ‘I’m sorry, would it be possible for me to have a short nap? I have had a busy day so far.’

     ‘By all means! By all means! Sleep is the greatest healer – greater than me!’ Lizhu took off her boots and slumped sideways on the sofa as the man dashed around the apartment looking for a quilt. It made her feel lazy in a nice way and she indulged in a few memories of her father who when she was a child would get similarly anxious when she was sick. The man who claimed he was Chen Si took a deep breath, and began to walk around more slowly, and opening a closet managed to find the quilt. Closing her eyes felt all too good and she didn’t worry about the quilt he would soon place on her.

When she awoke dreamlessly, the man was leaning on the opened window. He was smoking a cigarette with a pitch black filter, angling himself so that all the curled smoke left the room. It was early dusk, she must have slept for hours, and the smog didn’t appear too thick despite the spreads of scattered color and the faint blur of the farthest towers. She presumed he had been watching her sleep; nevertheless he was more wrapped up in himself at that moment. 

     Perhaps it was just the yellowing sky, but there was a brightness in his eyes, like plum wine. He smiled contentedly when he noticed her watching him, and didn’t feel the need to say anything immediately, and returned to gazing out the window. The wind made a slight sound across the opened window but Lizhu couldn’t feel any warmth or cold from it. The perennial sound of traffic seemed far below. He finished up his cigarette and extinguished in it a saucer. He spoke now in a new and lower voice,

     ‘Hello Lizhu, I hope you had a good sleep. Are you feeling better? Are you hungry?’

     ‘Agh, thank you, I think I need to sleep a bit longer but I guess I am awake now. I need a few minutes to wake up before I will know if I am hungry or not.’  

     ‘Okay well I can cook, or if you like we can go out for some food later. Just relax and clear your head.’

     ‘I’ll have some more of that tea actually. It was very good.’

     ‘It is isn’t it?’ He said with a small laugh. ‘Yes you look fresher. Sometimes sleep really does make all the difference; it makes what is dreams and what is waking far clearer.’

     How little this man knew of her life. He probably presumed some loneliness or stress, another case of being too little for the insatiate maw of the world. She wondered if he understood how memories can tarnish every dream, every thought tainted by warped associations leading to the unacceptability of what actually happened in the real world. The unacceptability of what had become the main events in her life. The unacceptability that nothing can be reset and the sick joke that it all ends in the same way anyway. Placing down her fresh cup of tea in front of her, unbothered by her silence, and possibly pleased that she was contemplating his wisdom, he began again.

     ‘Yes, you remind me of one of my earliest patients. Especially that withdrawn look in your eyes that you had before you went to sleep, like you were stranded.’

     Lizhu decided maybe she could push the man on this point, make the man tell a story better than that spurious one about the art student; authenticity under pressure has a ring of truth, a particularity of detail and imperfect coherence that invention can seldom match.

     ‘Oh I tend not to discuss the stories of those who came before. I like to give everyone confidence in privacy.’

     ‘But you said this patient reminded you of me, perhaps their story is the one to help me. Besides you told me the story of the art student…’

     He frowned but seemed to decide to maintain composure in front of being so obviously caught and he managed to smile with his eyes. ‘I suppose you are right, do you mind if I have another cigarette?’ She assented and he went back over to the window. ‘Well this young man was a truly tragic case; I hope for your sake that your woes are not so hideous. He is much better now but still I shudder for the pain he must have felt. I shan’t use his real name, we can call him Weifeng.’ He wiped his mouth with his sleeve and stared intently at Lizhu.

     ‘Weifeng was a hei haizei, an illegal child. He was born in a shed on a farm in Gaungxi province, his father having reared one legitimate son, being a farmer he could have three, but his next legitimate children were daughters, and so he coerced his wife to have five other children to work as free labour. That man was cursed, four more girls who were quite useful, but also Weifeng. The children were kept on the back of the farm till they grew old enough to lift sacks of corn, hidden from authorities, without any hankou documentation.’

      ‘Life is an incredible struggle without a citizen number, it means no school, no public transport, no buying accommodation, and worst no bank account so no way to get paid normally in a job. Maybe you can stay on the farm if no one asks, but if you want to avoid laboring in fields or sneaking in the back doors of factories, it can turn you into a criminal or a sex worker. I tell you many of those jumping of the Nanjing Bridge are hei haizei and with eight million of them they are larger than many nations on Earth.’ 

     His look told her he was trying to gauge by her reaction if she was a hei haizei. Judging that she was not, he took a breath to calm himself. ‘The father, mother and legitimate children would abuse the hei haizei, beatings and so on. The mother taught them to speak and a little bit of reading, but for the most part they were given less food, less love and less humanity. The family had to be inhumane, it was the only way they could make their crime palatable. Weifeng began carrying the sacks of corn when he was six and he continued until he was seventeen. The family had been making money, and the father full of vanity had been expanding, and someone who hated him was friends with the authorities and as a favour they went to investigate his cheap labour.’

     ‘One morning, Weifeng saw the policemen park just outside the farm, one off in search of an interview with the parents, three others sent to round up the workers. The father tried to lie his way out of it, but bloods were taken, and he received a huge fine for five unlawful children. There was no chance he could pay so they took his entire corn harvest. He screamed, he protested, he spent every day in front of the magistrate’s office begging for his life back, threatening he would drink poison if nothing was done for him, and with one too many looks of disgust from the security guards he drank the poison.’

     ‘The mother died shortly thereafter and the legitimate son was given the running of the farm in a state of permanent debt. The hei haizei were to stay with the son, and he probably continues the sick way he treated the sisters to this day, but Weifeng took the opportunity to leave.’

     Unnerved by the troubling energy that was brewing in the man Lizhu said ‘You really seem to empathise with what Weifeng has gone through Chen Si.’

     ‘Yes. We talked for a very long time.’ Unabated, he continued. ‘He found short jobs with truck companies lifting construction materials from the trucks to the sites. Then he reached the Yangtze and he got picked up by the national coal company, loading and unloading the coal barges, and sailing with them up to the mines and down to their destinations. The work was hard, but the exploitation wasn’t personal, and there was a freedom to it; on days between smog, while sailing in those rare non-urbanized parts of the Yangtze, he could lie on his back on the sheets covering the coal and look up at the night sky and feel like someone.’

     ‘Then a new young man joined the crew, let’s call him Jianbin. He was a humorous guy who became quickly popular with the entire crew. Weifeng had been mostly silent in his work so far, they all thought him as dumb as an ox, and the crew enjoyed the fact that Weifeng was getting paid far less than them, but Jianbin had time for him and made him laugh. Jianbin was soft-spoken but in an insistent way that couldn’t be interrupted; he had a cracked way of telling his stories. He was fond of the English word ‘fuck’ and had mock embarrassing stories involving women and whores that were probably fictitious but it didn’t matter because the jokes were funny.’

     ‘Anyway, Jianbin had become very interested in Weifeng due to a startling similarity in their appearances, same height build and even face really, and he made fun of Weifeng’s country accent, but Weifeng was able to joke back and soon they became inseparable during the boat journeys. They did their jobs together, with Weifeng’s extra strength being useful to Jianbin, and Jianbin affording him more protection from the others. Jianbin hated the work but he admitted that this extended to all work. He was the first true friend that Weifeng had ever had. Jianbin didn’t like his own family and when he heard Weifeng’s story he was sympathetic and joked that he could have his parents who were assholes.’

     He stopped for a moment, losing some momentum, the man poured himself another cup of tea and went back to the window. ‘One night drifting along, Jianbin had a brochure for a perfume ad, a lady in a blue dress with her hair up and with her back turned towards the camera and Weifeng was taking a bit too much of an interest so Jianbin gave him the brochure. He didn’t make it too obvious or embarrassing but Jianbin asked a couple of questions that more or less confirmed that Weifeng had never been with a woman. Jianbin laughed and cheerfully suggested that they should go find some when they reached Wuhan.’

     It was edging towards darkness outside and some of the lights from the towers were being flicked on. ‘In Wuhan, they finished up their work and Jianbin discharged himself from the company because he thought coal was too difficult to wash off himself. Weifeng was slipped his cash and Jianbin went to the ATM. They wandered around the shops, finding a cheap department store Weifeng bought himself a shirt with a floral print and from a stall on the side of the road shoes that weren’t muddy. Jianbin led him off to some of the business estates to the east of the city, where there were some run down bars and the like but Jianbin couldn’t find the one he was looking for. It took them into the late hours of the morning, and reaching the warehouse of a car company Jianbin began to get tired and suggest that he was sorry and had fucked up the evening.’

     ‘It was quiet and still, there was no one else about and no streetlights, and Weifeng said he saw something down the alley behind the warehouse. Jianbin didn’t know what he was talking about, and was asking why the fuck he was going down that alley, but being left alone he followed him. Weifeng paused in the alley and looked around, finding a half empty cylinder of petrol which he studied for some time, and then he turned back and approached Jianbin with no expression and took out a knife and slit his throat. Jianbin was so surprised he had barely raised an arm to stop him and Weifeng held his face in the mud as the blood poured out.’ 

     The man had lost interest in his tea, but he gave it a quick look, and placed it on the windowsill. ‘Yes he said it was terrible and there was so much blood. Weifeng took off his new and ruined shirt and threw it over the head where more blood seeped through. If he pushed down it just caused more to come out. He took his wallet and the hankou documents that Jianbin had been carrying and he lifted him into a paper bin. Then he poured the petrol in the paper bin and with a match set it on fire. The flames were tall and red and they sent long shadows and smoke along the alley walls.’

     ‘Weifeng was terrified, and he couldn’t move, he hadn’t thought there would be so much smoke - someone was bound to come and catch him. He finally decided he had to run away as fast as possible lest someone photograph his own tall shadow on the wall and use it to identify him.’  The man grimaced as if to suggest that Weifeng had been stupid to think such a thing, ‘He ran, and no one gave chase. He walked northwards until the sun rose, got on a bus to the train station, looking enough like Jianbin he used the hankou at the counter and booked a train to Beijing, the first he had ever taken. He found work there and was paid in full for the first time. He sent a letter to Jianbin’s parents telling them that he hated them and never wanted to see them again. Then work took him to Nanjing, he found the bridge, and I found him.’

     ‘You saved a murderer?’

     ‘Yes, yes I did. And now he is no longer a murderer, and he didn’t fall off the bridge.’

     ‘So he goes around living the life that Jianbin should have had?’

     He frowned, clearly agitated by her line of questioning, and knelt forward as if to convince her of a crucial point. 

     ‘Why waste a citizen number? Why waste two lives? This way he can live for good.’

     ‘Does he live for good?’

     ‘Yes, he tries. Maybe he is not remarkable but he tries.’

     ‘And how is he not consumed by guilt? How is it possible for him to live with himself? It makes me sick.’

     Paradoxically, with visible effort, he held his face expressionless.

     ‘Yes, you are very sick and need to be cured but we’ll get there.  Maybe it is you need time to think, think about what can be lost and what can be gained, think about how people are not that different really.’

     His enforced calm concerned Lizhu more than his increased intensity and she backtracked,

     ‘I guess one must know the man, and I hope that you are right in trusting him.’ 

‘I agree, but I do not need hope. I know.’ He stood up, and with a motion of his back of his hand gestured for her to hand him her cup, ‘Come, I think it’s time we get out of this apartment, maybe we can go get some food. There is a place down the road run by a man called Lu, he does good noodles with black bean sauce. Or fresh dumplings if you want them, he always has many.’

They left the apartment. The lift was slow coming so they went down the emergency stairway, the windows looking east showed the flat clouds still receding and the moon rising from the ramshackle city below.  The air was warm and the dust sweet as Chen Si checked his scooter but then suggested it would be as easy to walk. Mothers were at the balconies squeezing the lingering damp in the left out clothes, a group of boys watched two older boys in soccer jerseys trying to perform bicycle tricks, and Lizhu and the man had to cross to the other side of the street when a group of construction workers came along carrying building materials and tools for their night shift.

     ‘It is an important thing to always look at the people around you, and remember that all of them have probably thought about jumping off the bridge at least once. Yet here they are, they seem happy, and it is a nice evening.’ He pulled her lightly by the wrist as he made the snap decision to cross the road, the cars slowing down without protest or surprise and swerving around them, ‘It is a time to think about good things. You said you were not from Nanjing, have you tried the famous Nanjing noodles?’

     ‘No, I haven’t, this is my first time in Nanjing.’

     ‘You must try our famous Nanjing noodles, they are delicious, the very best. May I ask where you are from?’

     ‘Well my family is based here in Jiangsu Province but in a smaller town near Suzhou but I haven’t been living there for a while.’

     ‘Yes, Suzhou, there is very good food in Suzhou. The best moon cakes for the Mid-Autumn festival that I have eaten were from Suzhou; I think it was a famous bakery because people had been queuing all morning to get these moon cakes and I bought five just for me and they were excellent moon cakes.’

     ‘I think I know the place you are talking about but I never went there.’

     ‘Oh you should go, you should go.’

     They turned the corner and crossed the road again to a row of open street shops, the heavy yellow light glaring and the chatter and activity loud and the pop music quiet. The seventh shop down, the tables outside half-filled and the tables inside mostly empty, was Lu’s.

     ‘Good evening Lu. That sure smells good.’

     Lu, a short man in a polo shirt with balding dark black hair in a comb over, was standing in front of the shop, on barbecue duty with the spiced chicken skewers. Lu didn’t hear the man’s greeting and he just shouted back at his wife something about the rice and she shouted back at him. They went into the cramped interior and took an empty table in the corner near the fan. A member of Lu’s family, a daughter or niece perhaps, came over and asked them what they wanted and they ordered the noodles with the black bean sauce.

     ‘Best noodles in Jiangsu Province, you will soon see.’ assured the ‘Chen Si’ man smiling, seeming pleased with the eye contact he was making. They had just gotten some water when they heard a deep voice outside the door order,

     ‘I’ll have the egg fried rice, Lu, with both the chicken and the pork giblets. Do you have sweetcorn today? Yes, add the sweetcorn.’

     In walked a tall man, Lizhu looked at him when she noticed repressed anxiety spread into the corners of the eyes of her companion.  The entrant appeared to be an older man dressing young with long black hair down to his shoulders, with a black zipped up sports jacket, large spectacles. He smiled at the table with a crooked yellow grin.

     ‘Hello, little Honglin,’ he said touching him on the shoulder, ‘you have a lady friend with you, who is this? Nice to meet you.’

     Waving his hands to indicate a misunderstanding and gathering a small toothed smile of his own ‘Oh I’m sorry, I think you must think that I’m someone else. What is your name?’

     This only seemed to amuse the tall man on some level; he paused before he responded, ‘My name is Guoyi as you know, and you are Honglin my little friend who works with me on the docks. How could I be mistaken?’

     ‘This is very funny, I must look very much like this man but I must say my name isn’t Honglin and I have never met you before sir.’

     The man snorted, and looked between the man and Lizhu considering the situation, ‘I suppose this is possible. Honglin would never be quite so polite as you sir, or be sitting at a table with a lady friend because all his conversation is rubbish.’ The crooked grin widened watching the reactions, and he sat at the adjacent table, the noodles with black bean sauce and his egg fried rice all arriving at the same time, and with his chopsticks he picked up a fist sized chunk of rice and fit it into his wide mouth. ‘Hey Lu! This guy, isn’t this Honglin here?’

     From the doorway Lu called in ‘I don’t know, that is the guy with the noodles and black bean sauce, even when I have tasty chicken skewers fresh from the fire, always with the noodles and black bean sauce’ and he shrugged dismissively.

     Guoyi chuckled ‘Your wife makes a good sauce Lu, we cannot hold this as proof. Well sir, one thing you could do for us is show us your shoulder as I know for a fact that my good friend Honglin has a scar on his shoulder’ his long-fingered hand once again extended to the man’s shoulder.

     The arms was blocked gently with the man laughing ‘Really, you are a very curious man, but I do not want you checking my shoulder’

     ‘Why not? What is the harm?’

     ‘It just isn’t okay and I would like for you to stop talking to us now as I am having no time to talk to my friend.’

     ‘I see, have it your way. I’ll be talking to Honglin soon enough and we’ll soon see if you are telling the truth.’ He laid back in his chair, turned away, and concentrated on his rice with a smirk. 

     Turning back to the noodles, which were quite good but not exceptional, the man said to Lizhu as quietly as he could without it being obvious that he was trying to be hard to be overheard ‘You know Lizhu, I have to say that I did tell one lie: I’ve never really been to this restaurant before. I heard it was good from a friend and I brought you here thinking you might enjoy it, the food is good, but the people are very strange.’

     Guoyi, pretending to look at his phone, let out a chuckle at this. He turned his head again and watched them with contempt but did not say a word. The man slurped down most of his noodles in an impressive time and then said he was going to the bathroom and maybe they could head back to the apartment when they finished up. This left Lizhu along with the remainder of her noodles and Guoyi who sat at his table staring at her intently.

     ‘So your name is Lizhu? Why are you with this man? Surely you are not his girl. He is a terrible man.’

     ‘I’m not his girl. I am a friend of his.’

     This answer interested him even more. ‘Old friend or new friend?’

     ‘New.’

     He considered this. ‘You should be very careful. No one knows about little Honglin, he is always lying. He has no internet, no QQ, no WeChat, no one knows where he comes from or what is true.’

     ‘He doesn’t seem so bad to me. He is strange but I think he is probably kind.’

     Guoyi leaned forward again ‘What did he say his name was to you?’

     ‘Chen Si.’

     His eyes lit up suddenly like there was glass in them that fractured and he let out a ringing laugh ‘Hey Lu! Lu! Listen to what Honglin has been saying his name was – Chen Si!’

     ‘Chen Si – the angel!?’ Lu was laughing wildly revealing some of his missing teeth, taking some of his skewers away from where the flames were becoming too high.

     Guoyi turned backed to Lizhu, swallowing his laughter but barely able to stop his thick amphibian lips from forming a smirk. He had a rotten face and cruel eyes, thought Lizhu, and he leant towards her and whispered,

     ‘Run. You should run.’

     Lizhu considered telling him that she didn’t need to and that it was alright. She thought that maybe she should say this man had a good heart even if he was crazy and that he wanted to help people. Yet long second after long second passed looking into the terrible face of Guoyi, and she thought of the towel and soap waiting for her, the freakish intensity with which the man had told his stories, the way he had gazed at her longingly, the quilt she had woken up beneath, the way he had spoken about the murderer – ‘I know’ he had said – and she felt a chasm within herself.

     ‘Quickly, you should go. He will be back soon.’

     Instinctively she looked around for her handbag and then remembered she didn’t have one and she stood up and headed for the doorway. Lu walked over to Guoyi’s table, and he whispered something, and they stifled it for a second but they then burst into howls of shrill laughter.

     It was late and in a poorly lit part of the city she did not know. The buses had stopped running and the taxis did not roam this area. She knew it would take her hours to walk anywhere and she didn’t want to ask for directions. She wanted to go back to the Nanjing Bridge, but she knew the man would be waiting for her, searching up and down.

     Eventually finding again the sleepless veins of the main city, the glitzy advertisements for clothes and weddings looming higher than ever, she went back to the hostel she had left her stuff in and crept into her bed as silently as she could though she knew she had woken up the other customers with the click of the door. The next morning, she found she could turn even colder when she heard on the news that a docks worker called Guoyi had been brutally murdered in his home.

About the Author: W.J. Wrigley is a recent graduate of Trinity College Dublin and is moving to the USA for grad school in the coming Fall. He has had fiction and poetry published several times in the university journals The Icarus and the Attic and elsewhere and he hopes to continue to improve and progress. This story 'The Nanjing Bridge' is based on stories he heard while he lived in China.

Emissary to the Volcano

       A war chief named Popocatépetl promised to prove himself worthy of the emperor’s daughter by returning from combat with the head of the emperor’s greatest enemy. After the battle, a messenger told the emperor that Popocatépetl had cringed in the fight and died like a yellow dog. The emperor ordered his daughter brought in.

       Adorned as a bride in embroidered cloth and golden bracelets, her black hair burnished with indigo, Iztaccíhuatl listened as her father ordered her to forget the dead coward and marry a braver warrior. She bowed her head and backed away from the imperial presence. She slipped out of the palace unseen and ran into the wilderness, away from the tall columns and turquoise floors and jade bathing tubs, away from the aviary and menagerie and sculpted waterworks, away from the guards, servants, priests, artisans, and prisoners of war. As she ran, she stripped off and dropped her finery until she was no longer a royal bride but only a bare virgin. At a cold, rocky place, she collapsed and wept. Her tears froze, encasing her body in a shell of ice, and there died Iztaccíhuatl.

       When the emperor heard of his daughter’s disobedience, he ordered that her body be left untended in the wilderness for scavengers to tear apart. The spirit of Iztaccíhuatl would wander forever disfigured through the afterlife, forgetting that she had ever been beautiful and beloved.

       That messenger had been wrong. Popocatépetl returned victorious from battle, showed the enemy’s head to the emperor, and asked for his bride. When he learned that Iztaccíhuatl had died alone in the wilderness, receiving no funeral honors, his body swelled with rage. He hurled the decapitated head at the emperor and stormed out of the palace to find his love.

       Running, he followed her trail of discarded finery, stripping off and dropping his jaguar-skull helmet and body armor and weapons so that he was no longer a war chief but only a desperate bridegroom. When he found Iztaccíhuatl, lying naked and cold among the jagged rocks, her flesh ripped by coyotes and buzzards, her black hair no longer shining with indigo but dirty and tangled with thorns, he crouched and wept. His tears covered his body, encasing him in a shell of ice. But his rage continued to boil inside, erupting whenever it became too much for him to contain. 

       Eons later, Iztaccíhuatl and Popocatépetl are still out there, giant volcanoes in the Valley of Mexico. She has been dead for thousands of years, her ice-shell of frozen tears covered with dirt, rocks, and snow. He lives on, eternally grieving, his tears dropped as rainfall onto the pastures and fields of the villages on his slopes. This rainfall deposits volcanic ash on those pastures and fields, creating some of the most fertile soil in the world, enriching the villagers with bounties of tomatoes, corn, peppers, avocados, and beans.

       Every once in a long while, the warrior’s pent-up rage explodes, hurling fire and boulders, shaking the earth, and swamping the countryside with creeping, smoldering lava. In his greatest fury, he engulfs whole fields or neighborhoods in pyroclastic flow, a lightning-fast deluge of boiling sulfur gas and deadly rock fragments. But most of the time, he keeps his fury under control, rumbling and smoking just a little each day to keep from blowing apart. The villagers need his blessings of rainfall and fertile soil, and he cares for them—usually—as for the children he never had.

       They, in turn, revere him as a father but also pity him as a bereaved lover. Each spring they climb the slope to his cave, one of the many mystical portals between the surface of the earth and the interior, the land of time and the land of eternity, the living and the dead, to celebrate his fiesta. They call him by several names—Turquoise Lord, Fire Father, Spirit of Duality—but most affectionately by Don Goyo. Inside the cave, they light candles and arrange lilies and fuchsias on the stone altar. Kneeling on the cold ground, they pray for a fertile and quiet year. After the amens, they offer Don Goyo the first drink of pulque and the first bowl of spicy turkey molé before helping themselves. Mariachis play and sing while blindfolded children try to break the volcano-shaped piñata, showering everyone with coins and candy. As a final gesture of respect and love, the villagers set on the altar a beautiful new charro suit, black with silver buttons and embroidery—a perfect outfit for a bridegroom. 

*

       This was the story I used to beg my father to tell me. He was the Emissary to the Volcano—the voice of the village to the heart of Don Goyo. Every morning before breakfast and every evening before bed, he walked outside the house to face the volcano, crossed himself, and gave thanks for another day under its protection. When the rain was scanty, the hail destructive, or the locusts inordinate, he requested intervention. When the sun was plentiful, the breeze refreshing, the morning frostless, he gave thanks. If he awoke in the night with his mind knotted about the weather or the crops, he knelt on the floor, clasped his hands in prayer around his rosary, and disburdened himself. His prayers were always delivered in Nahuatl, our ancient sacred language. (It was well known that the sound of the conquistadors’ Spanish enraged Don Goyo.) Every spring, together with the priest, Papí headed the procession up to the cave, carrying the new charro suit. At the altar, he lit the candles while the priest prayed to the Virgin and asked that Papí be allowed to serve for another year as Emissary to the Volcano.

       This was honorable but dangerous work. Many times Papí climbed the mile to Don Goyo’s cave in rain, snow, or hail in order to light candles on the stone altar and pray for the easing of the storm. Even more often did he make that climb to ask for the calming of the volcano’s rage. The villagers were accustomed to Don Goyo’s daily displays of emotion—steam and gas emissions, rock fragments hurled from the crater, eerie nighttime incandescence, earth-rumblings—but the preservation of our houses, animals, crops, and lives required my father’s powers of persuasion.

       The villagers’ gratitude to Papí for performing this important service did not take the form of money—few of us had any to spare—but some mornings we found fresh eggs, ripe tomatoes, or caramel apple empanadas left on our porch. Often we found a new ex-voto retablo, a small painting offered to commemorate a miracle. Most of these miracles involved a crop saved from freezing, a child from drowning, or a car from crashing, but some were more unusual. My favorite showed Don Goyo in the background, dark blue and snow-capped and smoking against a pink-streaked sky. In the bottom left corner, a woman cringed and pointed at a silver sombrero in the upper right corner. Our Lady and Papí stood together on a cloud, calmly watching the silver sombrero, unafraid. The inscription read Luz Pacheco went to tend her goats and saw a UFO fly out of the crater of the volcano Popocatépetl. She was stunned and prayed to the Mother of Mercy and the Emissary to the Volcano. She gives this as a testimony to what happened. Tenango, 1953. 

       The ex-votos dedicated during Papí’s time as Emissary were added to the older ones and displayed in a shrine halfway up the slope between our house and the cave. Rock-built and conical, the shrine had an open top—like a volcano—to let in light and one open side for the devout to enter. Besides the little paintings, it housed the usual things: statues and pictures of Our Lady and El Niño, candles and incensers, framed prayers and vases of flowers. Every day after school, I walked the mile up the dirt road from our house to the shrine carrying rags and a pail of vinegar water to wipe the dust from the statues, replenish the candles and matches, and replace the wilted flowers with fresh ones.

       I loved praying at the shrine, imitating Papí’s communion with Don Goyo, but I hated cleaning it. Vinegar and dust in my nostrils, dirt and mud on my clothes, soot and plant-stem-slime on my hands. The long walk back and forth, the heavy pail, the dead chrysanthemums that smelled like sweaty socks.

       Mamí was not sympathetic. “Everyone in this family works. Would you rather do chores here in the house with me?”

       The same dirty tasks, just more of them. Plus cooking for hours only to watch it all vanish in minutes. Bearing and caring for ungrateful children like my brothers and me.

       “Would you rather work out in the fields with Papí and the boys?” 

       I hung my head.

       “Be satisfied, then.” She turned, arms full of soiled laundry, and left the room.

       Papí inherited his vocation from his father, who had it from his father, and so on, back for generations. None of them died peacefully in their beds. Our consolation was that an Emissary who died while performing his duty would bypass purgatory and go straight to heaven. There he would join his forefathers, the other Emissaries who had gone to God before him, and together they would continue their work, invisibly aiding the village’s earthly Emissary in protecting and perpetuating our life under the volcano.

       In my first memory of any talk about the succession, I am about six years old. We are at breakfast: Papí, Mamí, my two older brothers, and me. Eggs and chorizo, tortillas and green salsa, coffee and cinnamon-flavored hot chocolate. Tolo asks why Papí became the Emissary instead of one of his older brothers.

       “The succession doesn’t go by age, mijo. It’s whoever gets the calling,” says Papí.

       Adán’s eyebrows rise. “I thought your calling was farming.”

       “That’s just a business, a way to support my calling. Being a farmer keeps me close to Don Goyo, puts food on our table, and lets me raise sons. One of you will become the next Emissary when I go to God.” Papí smiles at my brothers. 

       Tolo does not smile back but looks down at his plate. “Why does it have to be one of us?”

       “It’s our family’s promise to God,” says Papí. “One of our ancestors swore long ago that a Mejía descendant would always serve as Emissary to the Volcano.”

       “But the next Emissary must also get the calling, yes?” says Tolo. “How will I know if it’s me?”

       My parents exchange a glance, and Mamí speaks. “You’ll know. It’s like falling in love, mijito. When it happens, you won’t have any doubt.”

       Tolo traces his knife through the pool of brown molé on his plate.

       Adán makes a rude noise with his mouth and grabs a handful of tortillas. “Well, it won’t be me.”

       No one speaks. I decide to interrupt the bad silence by telling them what I have always known. “I have the calling.”

       All four stare at me. 

       Tolo laughs. “Lunática.”

       Adán snorts and chews tortillas with his mouth open, staring out the window.

       Mamí smiles. “Your calling is to be a bride, Sarafina.”

       Papí pats my hand. “It’s only for boys, chiquita.” He looks regretful. I’ve accompanied him during his devotions ever since I could walk. I spoke my first words while kneeling at his side, bowing my head to Don Goyo: Notatzin, tlazocamati hue ipalnemoani. Our beloved father, thank you for giving us life. 

       They don’t understand, any of them. I remember every one of Don Goyo’s spring processions since I was born—going up the volcano strapped on Mamí’s back, being pulled in a wagon, riding a burro, hiking in new Keds. I even remember the year that Mamí carried me inside her belly. As she climbed up and up, I turned and pedaled inside her womb to adjust to the shifting angle of her posture. When she stubbed her foot on a rock and caught herself before falling, I kicked and punched in protest against the rapid tilt of gravity. The garlic and anise in the food she ate at that year’s fiesta popped my eyelids open and my tongue out. Most of all, I remember the sound: the volcano’s subterranean rumbling combined with the whooshing and gurgling inside Mamí’s body. Sound-armor. Safety and peace. I am sure that this is what having the calling feels like.

       Nothing more is said about the succession at this breakfast. Shortly after, Adán says he is going north to find work, and we never hear from him again.

*

       Ten years later, after the funeral with the empty casket, I skipped class to hike up through the rocky terrain to where the pyroclastic flow had swallowed crops, buildings, and animals along with my father. No one else had died. Before going up to pray, he’d made sure that everyone obeyed the evacuation warnings. Now he was looking down from heaven with his father and grandfather and all the Emissaries before them. They watched over me as I picked my way along the margin of the destruction and gazed at the towering columns of welded volcanic glass, the still-glowing boulderscape of lava, the raked and hardened flows of pumice, the endless sea of ash. Spare me, Mother of Souls.

       I’d asked Tolo to come with me to see this holy place, but he’d refused. He left home some weeks later. A friend of his had promised him work at a big garage, so he was off to Mexico City. Unlike Adán, he sent us his new address and wrote us a quick note every now and then, so at least we knew where he was and how he was doing.

       Now that all our men were gone, Mamí and I worked harder than ever. She arranged with other families to swap her labor (and mine) for help with our farm. Little Adelito Almeido came by daily to feed and water our burro and other animals. The four big Encinas boys split up the work on our fields, doing the ploughing, planting, harvesting, and packing. Rigoberto Cuamatla stopped by once in awhile to patch up leaking feed troughs, broken rungs on ladders, and new cracks in our adobe walls. In return, these good neighbors took home clean laundry, homemade pineapple beer, all the chilis and tomatoes their families could eat, sometimes even a fresh-killed chicken. The farm continued to do all right.

       Still, Mamí was often sad. With all our men gone, the family had no candidate for Emissary. The Mejía family would have to break its promise to God . . . and sooner or later, our village would be wiped out by the volcano.

       I’d been angry at Adán for years, and now I was angry at Tolo as well. Fury rumbled inside me all the time, just as it did inside Don Goyo. I continued to clean the shrine and do my other household chores, but I also took over Papí’s CB radio and notified our neighbors that I was temporarily acting as Emissary until the succession could be sorted out. I collected observations from the villagers who acted as volcano lookouts and transmitted daily reports and periodic warnings. Once I even conducted an evacuation drill for the school. After it was over, Señor Uvalde, our village’s headman, complimented me.

       From Papí’s books and notes and binoculars, I learned to recognize the difference between steam and gas emissions, to estimate the speed and track the direction of drifting ash plumes, and to understand words like tephra and caldera and lahar. I made flash cards with Nahuatl vocabulary words and quizzed myself every day. I’d even climbed alone up to Don Goyo’s cave to see it without the distraction of the other people and the ceremonial trappings of the annual procession. I’d stood in that heavy darkness, my eyes shut, slowly turning my body to feel the humid air, to hear the small cave-sounds, to smell the clean volcanic rock. I smoothed the damp fabric of the charro suit that Papí had put on the altar the previous year. And, of course, I prayed—for my brothers to be safe, wherever they were. For Mamí’s sadness to leave her. For Papí and the other ancestors in heaven to help us all. And for me to be recognized as the next Emissary to the Volcano.

       All this new work on top of my housework meant that I had no time for classes. The morning that I told Mamí I’d quit school, she got angrier than I’d ever seen before. I tried to explain, again and again, that I’d received the call and wanted to serve, but she wouldn’t listen, wouldn’t even let me speak. When I raised my voice to make her hear, she slapped me across the face so hard that I staggered and almost fell. We stared at each other for a moment—she had never before hit me—before she crumpled onto the floor and lay sobbing.

       Disgusted and hurt, I didn’t try to comfort her. I ran to the kitchen, picked up the sugar canister, took the emergency money, and left the house. With some vague notion of tracking down Tolo, I walked the village road to the highway and thumbed a ride with the first trucker who stopped. While he drove, I wept, so he talked to distract both of us. His name was Jesús María, he’d been married only six months, his wife was pregnant, they lived in the north part of Puebla in a town called Zacatlán, and so on. He gave me water to drink and made me eat one of the chorizo and egg burritos his wife had packed for his road food. By the time he dropped me off near Chapultepec Park in Mexico City, I was composed again.

       I walked and walked through the smelly streets of a busy shopping district, hands in pockets to keep my money safe, ignoring the calls of the hawkers and the wolf-whistles of the pendejos, but there was so much eye-confusion—pottery pigs, tiny dolls of wire wrapped with thread, miniature sombreros—that I was near tears again. I stopped to ask a few people if they could help me find the address of Tolo’s garage, but none of them knew the location of the district or the street. The city was a thousand times bigger than I had imagined it. Needing to escape the noise and the crowds, I turned off the main road down a tree-lined avenue leading to the park.

       As I walked, I read a tourist brochure saying that parts of ancient temples, roads, and aqueducts pushed up into the light from underneath the city—eternity protruding into history, markers of portals into the Inframundo. In the Tlalpan neighborhood, for instance, the tip of an ancient pyramid rises above the ground no more than sixty feet, a distance not even twice the length of a city bus. Residents and tourists walk by it thousands of times a day without giving it a glance, not knowing or caring that the rest of the pyramid extends far down into earth, along with an entire ancient city that surrounded it three thousand years ago before being entombed in volcanic lava.

       Another page of the brochure showed photos of mummies in a museum. These were people whose bodies had been naturally preserved by the dry air in the mines or caves where they’d died. One mummy-man’s mouth was wide open—in a scream? Heathenish thought. Rather a song of praise or a full-throated prayer of thanks. My first thought was to pity these dead trapped between worlds, neither here nor there, but then I began to envy them their existence in the everywhere. Most corpses deteriorate in dirt, silence, and loneliness. These mummies would live on, glass-protected and temperature-controlled, world without end, even after the city was once again shrouded in lava. 

       The avenue ended at a wooded area framing a small building roofed by a half-dome that rested on eight slim pillars supporting walls of glass. I walked, the building gradually enlarging in my sight, until I reached the entrance to its grounds. In front was a vast concrete fountain and pool with some kind of underwater sculpture lying flat on the bottom. I couldn’t see what it was meant to represent. No guards, no fence, no signs told me to stay away, so I went up to the edge of the pool and walked around, looking at the sculpture from all directions until I finally made out its shape: a running man made of stone. The only part of his body that wasn’t completely submerged was his head, tilted up so that a river gushed from his gaping mouth. A giant he was, endlessly disgorging the waters of the world—Tlaloc, beneficent god of rain and fertility, maleficent god of storms and destruction, ally and enemy of Popocatépetl, lord of the watery underworld that is one of the many portals into the Inframundo.

       A woman came out of the palace and walked toward me, smiling. “You’re welcome to come inside to see another sculpture.” 

       I stepped back from the pool. “What is this place?”

       “It’s a pumping station for the city’s water system. This fountain was created by Diego Rivera.”

       I didn’t know who Diego Rivera was. “I have to go. I need . . . ”

       “Restrooms are inside.” She smiled again, turning her body toward the door and reaching her arm out to me.

       Trapped, I walked with her into the building. Moving from outdoors to in, light to dark, sound to silence, I thought of those portals into the otherworld—graves, caves, mines, oceans, lakes, rivers—all the places where the boundary between the surface of the earth and what’s underneath becomes blurred.

       The indoor exhibit was a three-dimensional irregular spread of translucent colors on a big table sitting in the middle of an otherwise empty room. It took me a minute to understand what I was seeing: a topographical sculpture in layered glass. Blue-green translucencies, silver clarities, pale amber opacities resolved themselves into valleys and plains, rivers and lakes, mountains. I saw into and through and around the glass layers. Every movement of my head altered the lighting of the thing, illuminating and shading it in different ways. Here a glint, there a shadow. Here a flash, there a gloom.

       And then I saw that the sculpture represented the Valley of Mexico. I was looking down, like God, onto the very place where I, Sarafina Eumelia Mejía, was standing. My eyes automatically searched out Don Goyo to give me my orientation, and there he was. Near him was Iztaccíhuatl, his dead bride. And there, invisible but present, was my village and Papí’s empty grave and the old car that Tolo had left behind and the house that Mamí was alone in right this minute. Mamí, worried and frightened because of me. Mamí, who’d lost a husband and two sons and was now wondering if she’d lost me as well.

       I looked away and tried to focus on the sculpture’s label. Most of what was written there didn’t mean anything to me—I’d never heard of the artist or the donor and I didn’t understand the title—but one thing did strike me: The thing had been constructed entirely of different kinds of volcanic glass. As I whispered their names, my mouth filled with water, and I thought of Tlaloc disgorging floods as a blessing and curse for all living beings. Olivine basalt, yellowish-green with specks of dark red. Glossy obsidian dusted with pale gray snowflakes. Sideromelane, palagonite, hyaloclastite, tachylite, and more. The taste of the names in my mouth left me hungry again.

       I looked once more at the two volcanoes. Both were capped with whitish snow-glass; both swooped upwards in curves of striated greenish-blue. But through their translucent walls I saw that their hearts were different. The core of Iztaccíhuatl was a teardrop of blackness, silvery on the surface but dark underneath. It quietly closed in on itself, bringing the eye to stillness. Don Goyo’s heart, though, was wildly alive, a fiery kernel of crimson. It seemed to pulse underneath the glass earth and throughout the above-ground cone, throbbing with angry golden lights. I watched and listened, mesmerized, my heartbeats gradually synchronizing with the volcano’s, my body etherealizing, my molecules mingling with those of the glass, penetrating that center. I was inside the volcano, and my mind heard a voice: Why give me a new bridegroom’s suit every year but never a bride?

       I looked again at the two glass volcano hearts, hers black and dead, his red and alive, and felt the beating of my own heart. My own red, living heart.

       I had to go home. Seeing Tolo would have to wait.

       On the way down the avenue back to the main street, I stopped to wash my face and hands in the fountain to give me strength for braving the crowds and noise once again. I’d had nothing to drink since the trucker had handed me his thermos five hours earlier, so I drank and drank. As I refreshed myself, I watched Tlaloc spewing forth his flood and wondered how he could be both friend and enemy at the same time. No evil without good, Mamí liked to say. I wondered if that also meant no good without evil.

       Back on the street, I sought out a clothing vendor and asked if I could see her best ceremonial huipil. She showed me a beautiful one with red flowers and blue birds embroidered on the fine white cotton bodice and many rows of red and blue satin ribbons sewed around the neckline, hem, and cuffs. When she held it up against me, it came only to my knees, so she added a ruffled white petticoat to go underneath. I looked at myself in her mirror, imagining my hair braided with red and blue ribbons, a fiesta crown of flowers on my head. I’d have to spend nearly all the money I’d taken from the kitchen, but it would be worth it. The vendor wrapped up the dress and petticoat in paper, and I walked to the bus station clutching my package to my chest.

       At first, Mamí acted like I’d been gone a year rather than a day, embracing and kissing and weeping over me. After a few minutes, her heart shifted, and she began acting like she was sorry I’d ever returned, scolding and threatening. I waited through her confusion before saying, “I have something to show you.” 

       She sat with the huipil and petticoat on her lap for a long time, running her fingertips over the satiny threads of crimson and cobalt, listening and nodding as though hypnotized, while I told her of my revelation. After I finished talking and was quiet for a few minutes, she asked me how much the clothes had cost. When I told her, she shut her eyes and took a deep breath. I froze, but she opened her eyes and smiled. My face must have showed that I still felt cautious because she laughed and held out her arms to me. After our embrace, she made me put on the dress and petticoat and carefully examined me front, back, and sides, pulling on the fabric here, pinching it in there. I stood for a long time while she knelt, pins in her mouth, to mark places where a pleat or an inch of lace needed her attention. After the pinning, she stood, held my face in her hands, and looked into my eyes before saying, “The Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, Sarafina.” Then she ordered me to strip and left me standing bare while she whisked away the dress and petticoat for altering, washing, starching, and ironing.

       A week after arriving home, I woke up with a sore throat and fever. Mamí kept me in bed with anise tea, chicken soup, and Vicks VapoRub, but the sickness increased—vomiting, headaches, back pain, stiffness in my legs. We were both frightened because she didn’t know what to do. Señor Uvalde came to look at me. He showed us the headlines in his morning newspaper—Polio Outbreak in the Capital!—and said authorities were investigating the municipal water supply. I admitted washing myself in Tlaloc’s fountain and drinking from it. Mamí dropped to her knees and clasped her hands, but Señor Uvalde said, “Pray later. Grab the blankets from the bed and help me wrap her.” They swaddled and laid me in the back of his pickup, and he drove us the thirty-seven miles to the nearest hospital. There I watched as a rubber mallet tapped my kneecaps and stroked the soles of my feet. Nothing happened. People in masks took samples of my spinal fluid, stool, and mucus and sent them away for analysis. By the time the diagnosis came in two days later, I couldn’t move my legs at all. Worse, my breathing was going wrong.

       Gasping and panting, I was gurneyed into a room filled with horizontal steel cylinders, each six feet long, each with a living human head protruding from one end. A constant whoosh-phew noise, like a giant breathing, came from the mechanical iron lungs that were keeping their tenants alive. Two of the nurses inserted me into a vacant cylinder to lie on my back. They tightened the leather collar around my neck, switched the machine on, adjusted some valves, and stood back to watch.

       The relief was instantaneous. My lungs filled as they hadn’t been able to for days—filled and emptied, filled and emptied. Never before had I experienced such pleasure in simply breathing. The nurses nodded, patted my head, and left the room. I closed my eyes, inhaling and exhaling, inhaling and exhaling. Sleeping came easily inside the cocoon of the whoosh-phew.

       Waking was not so pleasurable. I was thirsty. My nose itched. I’d soiled my diaper. I wanted my mother. Electric lights went on and off randomly, not correlating with my sleeping or waking. I never learned the names or saw the faces of the other patients in the room. Nurses came in to feed and water me. Sometimes they extracted my cot from the machine, undressed and washed me, put a fresh diaper and gown on me, and slid me back in like a loaf of bread that needed more baking. Was I being punished? Or tested? Either way, I had to submit. Be it done unto me according to Thy word.

       Time never passed. I lay like that outside time, inside eternity. Like Don Goyo’s cave, the iron lung was a portal to the other world, the Inframundo, between here and there, in neither place, in both. My body was still, but my mind was busy all the time—thinking, remembering, planning, regretting, mourning. Papí’s cigarette-smelling mustache. The brown skin of Adán’s scalp shining through the top of his crew cut. Tolo’s fingers cupping his harmonica. Our old burro Romeo, whose love for a half-inflated beach ball knew no bounds. They were all inside my head, no longer in this world. And my old flesh body, too, was gone from this world, the iron lung my new body. Whenever a nurse adjusted one of its dials or leaned against its steel cylinder, I shivered, feeling that touch as on my own skin. Hoc est corpus meum; this is my body.

       The best part was the breathing. I’d never seen the ocean, but I imagined that being inside the iron lung was like lying in the surf at the beach, feeling the waves wash over my body, pushing and pulling, pushing and pulling. If only Don Goyo could feel this—or even just hear it. This was the sound he needed to calm his rage. I practiced forgetting my old flesh body and listening to my new steel body. The machine’s constant whoosh-phew sound reassured me, its alternating negative and positive pressure doing all the hard work of breathing for me. 

       When they finally let her in to see me a week later, Mamí spoke in Nahuatl so the nurses wouldn’t understand. “Your huipil is coming along well. We’ll be ready in plenty of time for spring.” She was combing out my hair, arranging it strand by strand on the pillow to radiate from my head, like the rays of a black sun.

       Studying Papí’s books and notes had greatly improved my Nahuatl, but my paralyzed diaphragm meant that I had to whisper, so they couldn’t have heard us anyway. “What about the iron lung?”

       “Señor Uvalde collected a tax, enough to buy it. It belongs to us now.”

       I sighed. “That’s too bad for the Morelos and Vivianos.” They were our poorest families. “I hope they don’t hate me for it.”

       She smiled and continued combing. “Not at all. They were glad to contribute. It’s a community benefit, after all.”

       “I hope so. But the machine needs a power supply.” Our village had no electricity.

       I felt her hands falter and stop combing. After a long silence, she said, “God will provide.”

       “God helps those who help themselves. Will you get Tolo on the telephone for me?”

       Another long silence. She still resented his leaving us. 

       “Mamí. We need him.”

       Her hands slowly began combing again. “Yes, of course. We need him.”

       “Don’t tire her out,” said the nurse who brought in the telephone.

       Mamí lowered her eyebrows and stared until the woman left us. She dialed the phone and spent a long time explaining everything to my brother. After starting in Nahuatl, she quickly switched to Spanish. I smiled, imagining Tolo saying, “Mom, talk like a human!”

       She held the phone to my ear, and I heard my brother’s voice say, “Hey, Lunática. I know you’ll do anything to get attention, but this polio stunt is ridiculous.”

       I’d missed him so much. Mamí saw tears in my eyes and barked into the phone, “Bártolo Fidel Mejía, watch your tongue! Your sister needs help.” Again holding the phone to my ear, she sat back and watched my face.

       “Hey, Tonta. I’m sorry I called you Lunática. I really meant Idiota. What do you need?”

       It hurt when I laughed, but Mamí’s face relaxed. “Get me out of here. I can’t go home until my iron lung has a power supply.”

       “Easy. This garage has tons of portable generators. I’ll pick out a good one and get you home from the hospital next week.”

       “Is the generator light enough for Romeo Jr. to carry up to the volcano’s cave?”

       He paused, then understood. “Yeah, easy. We can send up the gas supply at the same time. I know where I can pick up a gasifier cheap. It’s an old machine used during the war to power tanks and jeeps. Turns wood chips into fuel. I’ll call the sawmill foreman in Tenango and get him to deliver a truckload of free chips to Mamí’s house every week.” Among the badlands of rock and petrified lava on the volcano’s slopes were forests of cedar, mahogany, and oak.

       I was scared. My life would depend not only on the iron lung but also on these other machines. But they would come from Señor Uvalde and Tolo—and God—so I would have faith. Thy will be done. 

       “Can you stay home with us for a while?”

       “Yeah, sure. I’ve got an idea about installing generators and gasifiers for the whole village. Señor Uvalde might fund the project or hook me up with an investor. Hey, gotta go now. See you next week. Don’t stay out dancing all night, Lunática.”

       I laughed again, my chest hurting again, and handed the buzzing phone to Mamí so she could hang it up. She’d heard my part of the conversation and had inferred his, so we were quiet as she finished combing my hair into a dark fan around my head and held up her pocket mirror so I could see. “The Mojadura girls want to begin planning your flower crown. I told them it should be all blue and red—dahlias, morning glories, and chrysanthemums, just like the embroidery on your huipil. Is that what you’d like?”

        “Yes.” I could barely whisper now. “That sounds beautiful, Mamí.”

       She stroked my cheek. “Oh, my little girl. Mi chiquita. Just rest now. You’ll be home soon. The Lord be with you.”

*

       When Tolo and Mamí came to pick me up a week later, she wanted to kiss and cry and he wanted to joke around, but I said, “Let’s do all that later. Get me out of here first.” They laughed and wiped their faces and walked behind the iron lung—mine now, in law as well as body and spirit—as the orderlies rolled me out to Señor Uvalde’s pickup. Tolo directed them to set me in the middle of the flatbed and hook me up to his portable generator. They removed the bag-mask resuscitator that had kept me alive during the transfer from hospital to truck and restarted the iron lung. My chest expanded gratefully while Tolo and the orderlies chocked my wheels and secured me with bungee cords. While everyone worked around me, I lay on my back watching lady-bottomed clouds trailing wedding veils across my vision. Mamí held her pocket mirror above my face, tilting it so I could see a tiny Don Goyo smoking in the blue distance. “He’s waiting,” she said, and winked.

       They didn’t want me staring up into the sun while Tolo drove us home, so Mamí tied her black scarf over my eyes before we started off. On the road, the rhythm of the tires and the iron lung sounded over the steady drone of the truck’s engine and the portable generator, and I dreamed myself into Don Goyo’s cave. That’s where I will serve now. Down below, someone else will clean the shrine and operate the CB radio. New ex-votos will come, ones that show me up in the sky, floating weightless on a cloud inside the iron lung, shining like the sun inside a golden corona. The new paintings will testify to the gratitude of those whose cows I relieve of mastitis, whose crops are saved when I divert hailstorms, and whose children I cure of polio. In the annual spring pilgrimage up the slope of the volcano to the cave, villagers will bring me tribute of cacao and plantains for my nourishment inside the Inframundo. After Don Goyo’s old charro suit is replaced on his altar by a fresh one, I will be stripped of my old wedding dress and garbed anew.

       Inside the cave, the Inframundo, breathing will be my constant prayer, inhaling and exhaling my holy act of world-perpetuation. Singing, chanting, smoking sacred tobacco—these other prayer-breathings were used by my ancestors for thousands of years. Mine is the new way. 

       Hoc est corpus meum.

About the Author: Kathleen R. Sands has lived in Arizona, Scotland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, working as a zookeeper, laboratory technician, government writer, and English professor. Her short fiction has appeared in more than twenty magazines and in its own collection, Boy of Bone, which received an honorable mention in the 2012 New York Book Festival. Her novel, In-Between People, was a finalist for the 2017 Brighthorse Prize.

Cake

     Denise’s husband, Glen, enlisted in the navy before they got married.  In the four years that followed, he’d served two long deployments and his squadron had been out to sea for extended exercises several more times.  Glen had just gone out for another month of exercises when it happened.  A boyfriend she’d had in high school got Denise’s number from a mutual friend and called when he was passing through town.  He suggested stopping by for a quick visit and brought a bottle of wine when he did.  They drank that, and then some more that she had, and things just happened from there.  He got up in the middle of the night, dressed quietly, and crept out of the bedroom while she pretended to sleep.  She wasn’t consumed with worry that he hadn’t used a condom because she and Glen had been trying to get pregnant without success since their wedding night.  But, she felt worse and worse lying there as the alcohol wore away.

     When Glen’s cruiser came back in, Denise met it at the dock with the other wives.  She wore her hair the way he liked and a dress he’d given her for her birthday.  Like always, his initial embrace when he got off the ship was intense; they rocked back and forth for a long time and then walked arm in arm to the parking lot.  At home, he wanted them to get in bed right away.  She did, too, but there was a new ache somewhere deep inside of her as they made love, and a chill passed over her when they finished.  Soon, Glen began snoring softly.  It was late afternoon.  Denise watched dust float in the slant of sun that streamed through the window shade slats and listened to cars go by in the street outside the little bungalow they rented.  Twenty minutes or so passed before she smoothed the hair off Glen’s forehead, kissed him there, got into her robe, and went into the kitchen to start dinner.

     Things afterwards settled into a pretty normal routine.  Although the ache inside was never far away, Denise was able to act normally enough that Glen didn’t notice anything amiss.  He’d never been particularly observant or intuitive anyway, nor the type to be suspicious; his simple goodness and trustworthy nature were things that drew her to him when they first started dating.  Also, his earnestness and how gentle and solicitous he was with her – those things never changed either.  She knew how much he wanted to have a child, and even after all the years of trying, his hopefulness never diminished.  Earlier that year, they’d begun saving so they could try in vitro fertilization; Glen knew how long it would take to accumulate enough money, but he stayed upbeat about that, too.

     Denise’s period could be a little irregular, so she didn’t become concerned until the fifth week had passed since the last one she’d had just before Glen had gone out for exercises.  Finally, when that same chill in her became almost constant, she bought a pregnancy test kit and brought it home early from work when she knew that Glen would still be on his shift at the base.  In the bathroom, she hurried through the procedure, her hands shaking, then stood in the glaring light from the globes above the mirror and watched as two colored lines slowly appeared on the test strip: a positive result.  She shook the strip, blinking at it, but the pair of lines remained.  Denise lowered it to the counter, looked at her face in the mirror, shook her head, and began to cry.  After a while, she wrapped the strip and its packaging in toilet paper, brought the bundle out to their trash can in the alley, and buried it under several bags of garbage.

     She went for a long walk through the neighborhood and out along the bay.  She looked at the boats on the water and thought about how Glen had been gone more than he’d been home during their marriage and how lonely she’d felt.  But, she knew it was no excuse; it was what she’d signed up for as a navy wife.  A cold, winter fog drifted in from the north, and she hugged herself against it.  She walked until the afternoon’s light fell towards gloaming, then made her way home.

     Denise was putting leftovers in the microwave when she heard Glen pull the car into his parking spot in the alley.  She swallowed, turned on the radio, found some music, then turned it off again and busied myself washing dishes at the sink.  A few moments later, she heard the back door open and Glen’s footsteps come into the kitchen, then stop.  He cleared his throat.  She turned the water off, steadied herself, and turned around.  He was standing a few feet away with his hands behind his back, a big grin on his face.  He shook his head slowly back and forth, but kept smiling.

     “What?” she asked.

     He brought his hands around to the front.  One held the pregnancy kit strip.  He showed it to her like it was a trophy.  His grin had widened and his eyes were dancing.  “When did you do the test?”

     Denise felt her frown deepening.  “How did you find that?”

     He shrugged.  “Dumb luck.  Dog knocked over our trash can and was sniffing around what spilled out when I pulled up.”  He stepped over to Denise and took her in his arms.  “I’m so happy,” he whispered.  After a moment, she felt him trembling and realized he was weeping.  She forced herself to move her hand back and forth across his shoulders.  “So, so happy,” he whispered.  “Can you believe it?  We’re going to have a baby.”

Glen insisted on immediately calling the doctor and reached the office before it closed.  He made an appointment for the next morning, then called his supervisor and got permission to come in late.  Denise did the same while he went to change out of his work uniform; she just left a message for her boss at the supermarket that she needed to get something fixed on her car.

     The next morning, the doctor confirmed the pregnancy and then rattled on for a while about upcoming steps and prenatal care while Glen held Denise’s hand in both of his.  When he squeezed hers, she did her best to do the same.  Glen kept nodding, looking back and forth from the doctor to Denise.  She kept her eyes on the doctor’s face and hoped her hand wasn’t as cold in Glen’s as it felt to her.

     They’d driven separate cars so they could each head to work afterwards.  After the appointment, Glen gave her a final hug where they’d parked along the curb.  Then he stepped back with his hands clasping her upper arms and said, “Is everything all right?  You feel okay?”

     “Yeah.”  She blew out a breath.  “I’m just still in shock, I guess.”

     His smile returned.  “Well, it’s real as can be.  Better get used to it, little mama.” 

     He rubbed her stomach, kissed her cheek, then trotted to his car.  Watching him go, the only relief she felt was that she knew he hadn’t done the same math in his head as she had when the doctor gave the expected due date.  And because he was Glen, the same man she’d fallen in love with and married, she knew he never would.

They agreed not to tell anyone about the pregnancy for at least another month.  Denise went through the motions at work.  At home, she spent a lot of time in bed so she wouldn’t have to face Glen.  She told him she was tired or having morning sickness, which he accepted without question, bringing her instead an extra pillow or covering her with a quilt.  He moved quietly in the house so he wouldn’t disturb her and began preparing most of their meals, asking her if there was anything special she was craving.  Sometimes, lying there in bed staring at a wall, she could hear him humming softly in another room.  The ache and chill inside of her became one an the same, always there.

     Denise took time off work, making up a story about having a lengthy flu.  She’d always left after Glen each day and returned home before him, so he didn’t know.  During the mornings, she took long walks until it was late enough to go to a matinee movie – a comedy, if she could find one.  At home afterwards, she found herself cleaning furiously or organizing and re-organizing closets and shelves, often throwing things into the trash with a force that broke or scattered them. 

     Every time Denise saw a mother with a baby or a family together, she turned away.  Although she had gained no weight, she began wearing loose-fitting clothes.  She could hardly sleep; she just laid there listening to Glen’s soft, contented snores, alternately curling up against him and turning to the outer edge on her side of the bed, waiting for the first gray light of dawn. 

     It wasn’t until several weeks later that she made a decision.  It came on a Saturday morning when she got up late and came into the hallway.  She found Glen in their tiny second bedroom with all its furniture piled in the center.  He was painting a wall light blue; all the wainscoting glistened a fresh pink.  He paused and turned his smiling face to her.  

     “If it’s a boy, I’ll paint over the wainscoting blue,” he said.  “Vice versa, if it’s a girl.  Either way, we’ll be ready.”

     He held the paint brush like a baton.  Flecks of blue and pink freckled the hairs on the back of his wrists.  She put a fist in her mouth and bit the knuckles.

     “Hey, there,” he said.  “Stop that.”

     He embraced her.  “Sometimes, I get so filled up with joy, I’m ready to lose it, too,” he whispered.  “Yesterday, I passed a tool to a guy at work and just started tearing up.  I hope the baby has your eyes, your hair.  Your everything except maybe my nose; my nose isn’t bad.”

     Denise felt him chuckle and buried her face deeper into his chest.

On Monday, she found an abortion clinic online and made an appointment for their next scheduled opening two days later.  In the intervening time, she stayed in bed without interruption, even when Glen was at work.  During those stretches, she sometimes burst into muffled sobs.  She refused the meals he brought her and remained unresponsive to his touch.  He didn’t mind at all; he told her to get all the rest she needed.  When he turned out the light and said that her he loved her, Denise shut her eyes tight.

     After he’d kissed her goodbye on the morning of the appointment, she listened to him gather his jacket from the peg by the back door, his keys from the little table there, and walk out to the alley.  She waited for the sound of his car to disappear before getting up, showering, and dressing.  She walked through the neighborhood, her fists balled in her sweatshirt pockets, until it was time to call the cab that took her to the clinic.

     There were forms to complete, a lengthy consultation with a nurse practitioner, and finally, she was lying on a table in a paper gown, her feet up in stirrups, local anesthesia numbing the lower part of her body.  During the procedure, Denise stared straight up at the florescent lights behind their muffled plastic sheets in the ceiling.  She tried to steer her thoughts to happy memories from her childhood: family vacations, Christmas mornings, birthday parties, buying clothes and supplies for a new school year.  At one point, she put her hands over her ears, pressing hard, screaming silently.  

     Denise had entered the taxi driver’s number into her cell phone when he dropped her off and called him after the recovery period to bring her back home.  Twenty minutes later, she was standing alone in the living room of their little bungalow in the white light of early afternoon with the murmur of an occasional passing car outside.  She looked at the framed photos from their wedding on the wall and the shells they’d collected during their honeymoon in a glass bowl on top of the bookcase.  A clock made its slow, repeated tick from the second bedroom; she closed the door to that room.  She sat in the middle of the couch and stared out the front window.  

     A half-hour passed before Denise went into the bathroom, showered again, and dressed in different clothes.  She brought the clothes she’d been wearing into the laundry room, stuffed them into the washer, added detergent, and started it.  Then she went into the kitchen and collected ingredients to bake a cake.

     She ignored the box of instant cake mix in the cupboard and made it from scratch.  Her motions were sharp, focused, punctuated.  When she was finished, she put the pan in the oven and set the timer.  She went into their bedroom and laid down.  She was aware of sprinklers hissing on in the yard next door and ending abruptly a while later.  A siren wound its way somewhere across town.  A dog barked nearby and another answered.  Birds tittered in a tree outside the window.

     When the timer on the stove eventually rang, she went back in the kitchen, turned it off, and took the cake out of the oven.  She set it on a rack to cool, then made frosting in a bowl, and stood looking out the small kitchen window into the backyard.  A cat slunk along the fence that bordered the alley.  She stood very still, staring, until she heard the afternoon’s last southbound train clatter into the station several blocks away, blowing its whistle, then hissing to a stop.

     Denise stood at the counter and frosted the cake: chocolate on chocolate.  She found some rainbow sprinkles and coated its top.  She ran water over the dishes in the sink, glanced at the clock at the back of the stove, bit her lip, and went into the living room.  

     She was sitting in the same spot on the couch as earlier when she heard Glen’s car settle into its spot in the alley, heard him come in the back door, heard him reverse the steps from the morning with his jacket and keys, heard him pause at the opening to the kitchen.  Then he appeared under the arch where the hallway joined the living room.  Their eyes met and Denise started to cry.  He came quickly to her side, sat next to her, and took her hands.  She sniffed back a breath, looked at him, and said, “We lost it.  The baby is gone.”

     He stared back evenly.  His eyes didn’t blink, but his breath had quickened.  Finally, he said, “You miscarried?”

     She nodded.  “I didn’t want to tell you on the phone.  I’ve been to the doctor already.”

     His expression hadn’t changed.  Very quietly, he asked, “When?”

     “This morning.”

     Denise looked at him and choked back a sob.  Glen wrapped her in his arms.  “Shh,” he whispered.  “That’s all right.  We’ll keep trying.”

     She nodded into his chest, and her sobs became harder, deeper.  He kept whispering, “Shh, shh,” and stroked her hair.  The light in the room was muffled, dim.

     A few moments later, Denise pulled away suddenly, her eyes wide and wet.  She said, “I baked a cake.”

     A small smile creased Glen’s lips.  He said, “I can smell it.”

     “Chocolate.  Your favorite.”

     He nodded and reached over with a fingertip.  Very gently, he wiped tears from both of her cheeks.  His smile grew and he nodded.  He said, “I love your cakes.”  

     “I’m glad,” she said, and began whimpering again.  “I’m so glad.”

About the Author: William Cass has had over a hundred short stories appear in a variety of literary magazines such as december, Briar Cliff Review, and Conium Review. Recently, he was a finalist in short fiction and novella competitions at Glimmer Train and Black Hill Press, received a Pushcart nomination, and won writing contests at Terrain.org and The Examined Life Journal. He lives in San Diego, California.

Suffer the Little Children to Come Unto Me

       They were playing behind the shrubbery, in the chill darkness under the front porch. Their presence was concealed by the green-painted frame latticing that extended the length of the house three feet from the bottom of the weathered porch to the ground.

       Lowering his voice to a whisper tinged with suspicion, Jimmy turned to Chris. “Why’d you bring me under here? I don’t like it.”

       The two eight-year-old boys crouched low on the cold earth to avoid bumping their skulls on the blackened overhead beams. 

       “Over there’s the secret I wanted to show you.” Chris pointed through the shadowy darkness to a long, narrow mound of earth at the far side of the crawl space. “Can you believe it?”

       “That’s all?”

       “See for yourself.”

       Emboldened by Chris’s challenge, Jimmy, crawling on all fours, threaded a wary path through the detritus that had been shoved under the porch over the years—half-used bags of concrete mix and gravel, rusted garden tools, paint cans, broken lawn furniture. With distaste, he raised the arm of his winter jacket to swat away the tattered cobwebs dangling from the rafters that increased the closer he got to the oblong mound. Chris followed in his friend’s wake.

       “It’s not just a pile of dirt,” Chris said, his voice preternaturally calm, when the two boys reached the raised earth. “Don’t you see? It’s a grave.”  

       The nylon whisper of the boys’ parkas as each hugged himself against the cold was the only sound to disturb the dead hush that followed. Gray light slanted through the latticing and cast a grid of cross-hatched shadows, grotesquely elongated, over the mound.

       “You mean somebody’s buried here?” Jimmy’s eyes widened, imagining how neatly its dimensions would accommodate a corpse. An adult corpse, to be precise. 

       “Course it’s a grave,” Chris said. His thin treble, muffled by the beams overhead, was subdued but certain. He ran a pale hand over the top of the mound. The soil was damp to the touch, as if it had been freshly turned. And yet, paradoxically, it felt packed as hard as clay. When he lifted his hand, black dust clung to his palm. “I was exploring under here last Friday, while you were at your grandma’s for Thanksgiving. That’s when I found it—” Chris gazed at the grave “—and that was two days after Uncle Harry died.”

       “The old creep’s dead? No way! I figured he’d just gone to live with some other relatives like he always does.” 

       “That’s what Mommy and Daddy want me to believe. When I got home from school Wednesday, they just said he’d ‘gone for good’ and ‘God’s riddance.’ But I know better.” Chris paused. For years during Uncle Harry’s off-and-on stays, he had shared Chris’s room, sleeping in the same bed, the furnace of his heavy, hairy, snoring body forming a valley in the center of the spongy double mattress from which Chris fought to keep himself from rolling. But when Uncle Harry had showed up this September—the cousins in Sulphur Springs had had enough of him—his parents had darkly informed Chris that the boy would be sleeping on the foldout sofa in the den while Harry stayed in Chris’s room. Chris had felt a surge of relief.  

       “I know he’s not just gone.” A scoffing tone entered Chris’s voice. “The day before, I heard Daddy talking on the phone ‘bout a coffin, and you’ve gotta have a coffin if somebody’s gonna die.”

       “You saying your mom and dad buried him down here? And didn’t even tell you?”

       Chris hesitated. 

       “Maybe they didn’t want to scare me.”

       “Why?”

       “Remember how mean Uncle Harry was?”

       “Don’t I, always cussing at us, smacking our heads if we got to close.” 

       Chris thought about the many times he’d awoken in the middle of the night to the smells of stale tobacco and liquor, his uncle’s heavy arm straight-jacketing him in the sweaty bed sheets. “Mommy and Daddy were always warning him he was in for it if he didn’t repent his ways.” 

       “But why bury him here?”

       “Sure you want to know?”

       Jimmy nodded. He’d drawn his knees up to his chin and encircled his legs with his arms.

       “You got to keep it a secret. The way I figure, maybe this is where you have to be buried, if you’re wicked enough to … to go down there.”   

       Jimmy tried to laugh. “That’s stupid.” Yet his body shuttered, as if warding off the blow of an invisible antagonist. “Like this is some special doorway to … to Hell? That’s way too weird. I’m going back outside.”  

       Chris cast a last look at his uncle’s resting place, then trailed Jimmy to the opposite end of the crawl space. The two boys squirmed through the small door built into the facing of the lattice on the side of the porch and emerged into the pale light of the failing afternoon.

       Wordlessly they pushed their way through the boxwoods and dead chrysanthemums fringing the house, kicked at the drifts of brittle leaves littering the brown lawn, its spotty covering of grass as withered as the sparse hairs on Uncle Harry’s scabby cranium. Reaching the street, they sat on the cold cement curb and stared upwards at the surrounding trees, whose bared limbs stretched upwards toward a darkening sky that showed no flush of sunset.

       Tentatively, Chris spoke. “I didn’t meant to spook you.” To himself, he thought you’re my best friend. I needed to tell somebody my secret.

       “Nah, I wasn’t scared. It just made me feel creepy, I mean creepy, being there, right beside it. Like his ghost was about to reach out and pull me down into the ground. You know?”  

       “I know.” Chris watched an invisible gust of wind rattle the trees overhead. “I’ve had weird feelings, too, ever since I found it.”

       “Like what?”  

       Chris affected a laugh. “Like maybe it’s my turn to die next.”

       “Good kids don’t die. My mom promised me.”

       “Okay.” But the words of Chris’s father reverberated, darkly, in his mind: All children are born into depravity, deserving of eternal death unless they spend all their days atoning. 

       “Why don’t you come over to my place? We can play video games.”  

       The temptation was overwhelming; Chris’s parents didn’t allow video games, called them the work of the Devil. But he knew better than to ask permission to join Jimmy tonight; it was his evening to read the Scripture, and he needed to practice before his dad came home. If Chris stumbled over the words, even those impossibly big words, his father would devise some new punishment; he always did. The family had been reading the New Testament, from the start, after dinner, for over a year now. God’s word must you hide in your heart, so that you sin not against Him, his father reminded him, drumming the hickory switch against his palm as he waited for Chris to bend face downwards over the bed.

       “Nah, not today.  Maybe after school tomorrow?”

       “Sure thing.”

       Rising and stretching, Jimmy retrieved his skateboard from where he’d propped it against the front steps, and as Chris watched, his friend leapt onto the decal-festooned board. Theirs was a quiet neighborhood—not a moving car to dodge—but still, Chris admired Jimmy’s derring-do as he zigzagged down the steep hill towards his house. That was something else his parents didn’t allow—skateboards, and certainly not ones decorated in flames of red and gold and black. 

       A damp chill made Chris shiver as he returned the yard. The strange feeling that he’d tried to explain to Jimmy washed over him, a sensation, a tingle as hard to identify as bristles of a dry paintbrush passing lightly over the back of his neck, and it filled his mind with an answer he had not known till this moment:

       It was going to happen soon.

*

       Erika Fowles fretted. She tested the flounder: yes, it had thawed, but she dared not put it in the oven until she was sure Joash was on his way home. Then again, nothing would be worse than his arriving before dinner was ready to set out—especially if, as she had reason to suspect, her husband had undergone another trying day at Grace Christian. Joash hadn’t answered when she’d called him at his office twenty minutes ago.  If only he believed in smart phones or text-messaging life would be so much easier. But he didn’t, more work of the Devil to distract the weak from the Light. From the vacant look of teens about town, glued to the ghostly screens they always had in hand, Erika had to admit he was probably right. She looked out the window over the kitchen sink, into the darkening driveway, no headlights in sight. Dare she steal a few minutes and return to her desk, shoved into the corner of the den, open her Milton, and see if she could make any progress on the masters thesis that she refused to admit she had all but abandoned years ago?

       Sitting at the kitchen table as he filled in the blanks on his math worksheet, Chris watched his mother from the corner of his eyes. She was more skittish than usual, he’d noted that she’d already taken several tablespoons from the brandied fruit incubating in the glass jar on the kitchen counter—“to steady my nerves,” she said. That was right after he’d asked her, ever so casually, if Uncle Harry would be back for Christmas. “No!” she exclaimed, then hastily turned her face away. “I mean, no, it’s unlikely.”

       Five days had passed, it was Friday, and still nothing had happened. He didn’t know what the event would be, but the nightmares told him it was imminent. They had commenced after Uncle Harry had disappeared, and they had intensified ever since Chris had found the grave-shaped mound of earth under the front porch. Strange forms had infiltrated his dreams, then burrowed their way into reality till they seemed living forces filling the darkness of his bedroom—now that he was sleeping, again, in his own bed, the foul scent of Uncle Harry yet clinging to the duvet—and they whispered to him that he was wasn’t dreaming, that he was awake, their gentle voices close by his ear murmuring, Walk forth with us. But he couldn’t have been awake, there was no one in his room, no one trying to pull him under, the silenced cries that struggled to exit his throat and the warm touch of fingers that paralyzed him were not real. And yet, every night, he’d woken choking, trying to scream out loud the horror that he felt, the horror that knew no bounds between waking and sleeping.

       “Chris, honey? You’ve the most peculiar look on your face—”

       The sound of a car engine revving to pull into the steep driveway diverted his mother; his father was home. He watched as she quickly dashed paprika on the pale flesh of the fish, slipped the casserole dish into the pre-heated oven. Flesh of our flesh. Fishes and loaves for the multitude. The blessed ones.

       Joash Fowles was indeed in the surly mood that his wife anticipated when he slammed open the back door and stomped wearily into the kitchen—a mood so familiar to Chris that the boy immediately willed himself into invisibility. The weight of the world—not simply the weight of serving as second-in-command of the sixty-odd students enrolled at Grace Christian Academy—tugged at the man’s shoulders as he crossed the room. Have pity on me! Such trials as I suffer for all the little children of the world, every hour of every day, so that they may someday learn to walk in the light of Lord! That was the message that each of his heavy footsteps conveyed to the fraying linoleum as he dropped his briefcase on the formica top of the kitchen table, sending Chris’s math sheet spiraling to the floor.

       Erica fluttered to his side, fragile as a moth flitting around a flame that yearned but dared not touch. “Dinner’ll be ready by the time you wash up!” 

       A half hour later, hunched over the oak table in the dining room, Joash was not yet done pontificating about the indignities he’d suffered throughout his day. The head master was leaning hard on him because next year’s projected enrollments were down. And he suspected that the new history teacher, despite her training in Kingdom Education theology, wasn’t as strict a creationist as she’d led him to believe when he’d signed her up for a two-year contract.  

       “How can we lead the child to Christ, build the child up in Christ, if his teachers walk in darkness?”  

       But worst of all, he’d had to deal with Spud Conway, a junior caught in possession of a forbidden novel—its title unnamed in Chris’s presence. Joash had advocated immediate suspension, but the head master peremptorily overruled him. Spud’s parents, he reminded Joash, were two of the Academy’s most vociferous fundraisers; and Spud was dating Chastity Riddlebury, whose father served on the Board of Trustees. Rules are rules, and infractions infractions, Joash doggedly countered: in the final reckoning we shall all be measured equally before God’s throne. But the head master had barely deigned to listen, so Joash bemoaned as he scooped the last white flakes of tasteless flounder into his mouth; Mammon was establishing a foothold in their precious school, so Joash lamented. Erika attempted to lighten the mood by reminding him of the Church Fathers who had tried to silence Milton, calling his masterpiece the work of an apostate, but he shrugged her off. What Erika really wanted to tell her husband was that she’d called Lamont College about the cost of re-enrolling for completion credits in January, so that she could finish her thesis once and for all.

       Chris drifted in and out of the conversation as he picked at his soggy vegetables, studying his father’s hands. They lay with palms turned down on either side of his place setting, gripping the edge of the table convulsively. The long, thick fingers, tipped by bitten fingernails, crossed with bluish veins, covered with silky black hair, seemed to vibrate with rage. So unlike like his mother’s small thin hands, nervously winging their way here and there, fingering the utensils, stroking the buttons on the high collar of her white blouse, folding and unfolding her napkin.  

       Night had completely drowned the last vestiges of twilight when the family resettled in the front room by a glowering fire as Mr. Fowles prepared to read the evening scripture. Corinthians. Second Corinthians, Chris corrected himself as he looked out the front window into the starless blackness, pondering the approaching time, when, alone, he would have to face the dreaming and waking terrors that threatened to suck him beneath the wave-like shadow of night.  

       “Jeans, eh?”

       Chris turned from the window—he had been noticed, for this one instant had actually become a livingbreathingbeing in his father’s eyes.  

       For his father was talking to him, a rare note of approval in his voice. On Fridays, students were permitted forego the Academy’s dress code and wear jeans if they donated two dollars to a designated missionary fund. Yes, his mother chimed in, eagerly, we should be so proud, Chris took the money from his book fund to give the mission in Zaire—so many lost souls and so much disease! Why hadn’t his father noticed that he was wearing jeans this morning, Chris wondered? He had been sitting right by his father’s side in the car as they drove to school. No time for rumination, though: Mr. Fowles handed the opened Book to Chris, who read his ten verses carefully, his words punctuated by the cracks of firewood yielding to the flames that leaped fitfully between them. He made no mistakes. Mr. Fowles took over where Chris had left off.

       “But I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtlety, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ. For if he that cometh preacheth another Jesus, whom we have not preached; or if ye receive another spirit, which ye have not received, or another gospel, which ye have not accepted, ye might well bear with him …”

       And Chris’s thoughts again wandered, thinking of the night to come, of his growing certainty that something would happen any night now, that the forces battling within his dreams, straining at him, pulling him from all sides, were readying for a final assault. Against such horrors, Chris willed his mind to return to the living room, to his father’s powerful if bowed body outlined by the flickering beams of the fire, to his mother leaning back in her rocker, eyelids closing, then fluttering open, as she submitted to utter stillness. He had spied her taking more spoonfuls of syrup from the brandied fruit jar in the kitchen when the two of them had cleared away the dinner plates. 

       “… for such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ. And no marvel: for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also be transformed as the ministers of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their works.”

       Lying the Book aside, Mr. Fowles commenced a prayer—“Pray that we, your faithful servants, are not deceived by the False Prophet, nor led from the inerrant Word”—and he was just uttering “Amen” when the telephone in its nook by the dining room rang shrilly. Exasperation lit his face, presaging an outburst of temper that Mrs. Fowles attempted to divert by asking Chris, in as light a lilt as she could manage, to answer the phone.  

       He dashed out of the overheated room and put the heavy receiver to his ear. “Hey, it’s me, Jimmy. My parents said it was cool if you want to do a sleepover here tomorrow.”  

       Jimmy’s words entered Chris’s soul like the answer to a prayer. If only his parents said yes, he would make it through tomorrow tonight, if he were at Jimmy’s, if only . . . so he waited, feigning patience, as he conveyed Jimmy’s invitation and his parents deliberated. True, the boy was an A student at Grace Christian, but Joash frowned on the fact that Jimmy’s parents had joined First Methodist rather than their own Church of the Final Believers. Still, a boy should have friends, Chris’s mother said, and better a good Christian boy like Jimmy. . . . “Well, as long as you get home in plenty of time to dress for Sunday School,” Mr. Fowles gave his assent, and Chris dashed back to the phone nook to convey the good news, biting his lower lip in something like joy. Tomorrow night he would be safe. Now he only need worry about tonight.

       “Don’t forget to take the trash to the curb,” his mother called from the living room as he put the receiver down. 

       It was his final Friday night task before brushing his teeth for bed. On the way out the kitchen door, Chris noticed the flashlight on the shelf above the dishwasher and took it with him. After lugging the waste receptacles to the street, he wandered across the front yard, dimly lit by street lamps, until he found two sticks he thought were the right size. He pulled some twine from his jeans’ pocket and, taking off his mittens, tied the sticks together hastily. His hands shook with cold as he tiptoed to the side of the front porch and flicked on the flashlight. His heart was pounding but that didn’t stop him from stooping to breach the entrance leading to the underside of the porch. Nor did it stop him from crawling over to Uncle Harry’s grave, spectrally lit in the golden beam of the flashlight, and laying his crudely fashioned cross on top of the mound. He raced out, heart still throbbing fiercely, praying that his action had secured a night of calm from the forces rallying in the darkness of his room.


       First they’d played Super Smash Brothers, and then they’d raced each other in Mario Kart Eight, manipulating their controls with lightening-speed fingers as they sat raptly in front of the 48 inch flat-screen television. Flat-screen! For Chris, the sleek clarity of the image was even greater than the thrill of playing video games that would have sent his parents into lamentations about the end of civilization. Earlier in the evening, he and Jimmy had constructed a fort out of cardboard boxes, chairs, and a sheet, smack in the middle of Jimmy’s bedroom, and his mom had allowed them to eat their dinner on the floor inside the citadel: mac-n-cheese and chicken nuggets—not a vegetable in sight.

       And now, best because most forbidden of all, Jimmy’s dad was letting them watch as he navigated “The Last of Us,” a gruesome video game in which a diseased and putrefying earth is on its last legs, and in which the few humans who have escaped the pestilence are killing each other for sustenance: an End of Days scenario even more vivid than the Revelations of St. John to which the minister in the Church of the Final Believers had recently subjected the congregation. Meanwhile, Jimmy’s mom indulged her “little men” with all variety of treats: carmel popcorn, scoops of chocolate-drizzled vanilla ice-cream, and, most miraculous of all, cans of Dr. Pepper. Chris’s parents frowned on soft drinks—Chris had been lectured time and again about how they stunted a child’s growth. The slippery slope from “soft” to “hard” drink addiction was one avoided by the truly righteous. 

       Jimmy tilted his head, drained his can in one swallow, and Chris, not to be outdone, followed suit. The soda’s fizz was intoxicating. He grinned at Jimmy and let out a belch, and Jimmy obligingly belched back. But Chris’s grin vanished as he felt his throat constrict and mouth pucker, and before he quite knew what was happening he’d vomited all over the hardwood floor.


       “Why, why, did I have to get sick?” Chris moaned in the darkness of his own room. Thirty minutes ago, his parents had fetched him from Jimmy’s house. Yes, Chris may have also overeaten, Jimmy’s parents admitted over the phone, but his forehead’s burning hot, he’s definitely come down with a fever. Chris had protested, with tears, that he’d be fine, but to no avail—both sets of parents agreed he must go home. And he’d protested, again, when his mother administered a dose of medicine that tasted as bitter, to his fevered imagination, as a potion concocted by a coven of witches and warlocks. When she turned out the light in his room, he’d protested again, crying despite himself. The hall light filtering in from the half-closed door revealed a look of genuine concern on Mrs. Fowles’ face as she retraced her steps to the side of Chris’s bed and stroked his hand.  

       “What’s gotten into you, honey? Be my brave little soldier.” God’s Soldier, Chris thought, the words springing loose from some remote place deep within his fevered thoughts. She touched his hot forehead with her cool lips, whispered that he must sleepsleepsleep, and tiptoed out of the room, leaving the room in utter darkness when she shut the door. Chris knew he would not be alone for long. So he willed himself to stay awake, to remain alert against the coming forces. He was drowsy, though, the urge to close his eyes swept over him in waves, was it an effect of the bitter drug he’d been forced to swallow, its taste still benumbing his tongue? 

And then it hit him, with more force than it had ever unleashed before.


       Jimmy felt fit as a fiddle when he woke up the next morning. He was buttoning his shirt when he spotted Chris’s scuffed blue backpack, sagging forlornly in the corner of his bedroom; it had been forgotten in the rush of last night’s events, when the Fowleses arrived in a fuss to convey Chris home. He knew it contained Chris’s homework assignments, plus his marble collection and favorite baseball cap, to say nothing of his Bible, so after breakfast he called his friend to let him know he’d left the bag here. Only when no one answered did Jimmy remember the Fowles’ strict rule about never answering the phone on the Lord’s Day. He bet Chris was already feeling better, so he asked his parents if he might dash up the hill to return the bag. Sure, they agreed, but be quick, since the Fowleses always leave early for church—and for the Lord’s sake don’t get near the boy if he’s still ailing!


       The wintry day was blustery, the frigid air stung Jimmy’s cheeks shining red as he dashed off on his mission of mercy, backpack hitched over his shoulder. Huffing and puffing up the hill to Chris’s house, he watched his breath condense into white vapor. Fast-moving, heavy clouds were moving in from the east, portending the first snow of the season. Jimmy made a mental note to wax his sled’s blades this afternoon. With any luck, he would soon be sledding down this very hill.

       Out of breath but filled with energy, he entered Chris’s yard. Frost covered the ground, crunching under the soles of his shoes as he stepped across the lawn. Following his usual route, he headed around the side of the house to the kitchen door. But before he’d gone more than a few steps, he heard raised voices emanating from within. Angry, combative voices, the words muffled to meaninglessness by the clapboard siding but belonging Chris’s parents, sounds rising and falling in a rhythm of dispute the likes of which Jimmy had never before witnessed between the couple, always so quiet, so removed, in his presence.  

       The strident tones gave Jimmy pause, and he looked around, uncertain whether to continue forward. Maybe this wasn’t the time to interrupt them. Chris’s backpack could wait.  

       “I wonder,” Jimmy thought, randomly, not really knowing what he wondered as he retraced his steps along the side of the house. Approaching the front yard, he noticed that the small door in the latticing leading under the porch had swung open. It creaked to and fro in a wintry gust of air that set the choir of tree limbs overhead sighing as the branches bowed and swayed.

       “I wonder,” Jimmy thought again, and without quite knowing what he was doing, he approached the opening, put down Chris’s backpack, and entered the underbelly of the porch, taking a deep breath as he squirmed forward in the direction of Uncle Harry’s grave. The crawl space was pitch black, no daylight yet penetrated its length. Though he was seized with second thoughts, a feeling compelled Jimmy to make his way to the far side of the porch. Gradually, his vision adjusted to the darkness.

       “Here we are,” he said to himself, coming to a stop by Uncle Harry’s grave. A broken cross, made of sticks, lay across its top.

       Instantly, he caught his breath. His mouth opened, but no sound emerged from his parted lips as he gazed before him. There, in the dim shadows, he realized he was looking at two mounds of earth. And the second was but half the length of the first.

About the author, Joseph Boone: I am the author of three works of nonfiction and the libretto for a musical based on Melville's The Confidence-Man. Four stories have recently been accepted for publication, one of which placed third in the Hackney national fiction competition. Another story was a top-ten finalist in the New South competition. I have recently completed my first novel.

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.