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.

Just Another Fish Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Treasure Hunt

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

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

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

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

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

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

Legends of the Lost,” Luis read aloud. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Treasure.” 

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

“Treasure.” 

And the day began. 


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

Tekla's Child

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

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

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

     She is awake.

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

     A shovel slices sharp into dirt. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     “And you are?” 

     “Franciszka Gorzynski.  Call me Franzi.”

     “Frances,” the census worker said, writing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 1921: Uncle Walter’s Funeral
Thursday

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

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

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

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

     "How old is she now?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     "Nora!"

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

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

     "Answer me when I call you."

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

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

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

     "Why not strudel?" Nora said.

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


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

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

     Nora swallowed and her eyes grew damp.

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

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

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

     She held out her package.

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

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

     “Strudel?” Helen said.

     “No, Strucla.”

     Helen smirked.

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

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

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

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

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

     The back door squeaked open.

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

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

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

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

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

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

     “Nora?” she added, offering the cigarette.

     Nora’s face went hot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     “Helena.  Drink.”

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

     “Now you, Nora,” Babcia said.

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

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

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

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

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

Friday

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

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

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

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

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

     “Quiet, Nora,” her father whispered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

     "Nora! Nora!" 

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday

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

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

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

     He closed the door behind him and leaned against it.

     "Leave me alone," Nora said.

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

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

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

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

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

     “You are my brother,” Nora said.  

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

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

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

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

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

Monday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     “Kurwiarz!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     Nora nodded.

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

18 April 1930: Good Friday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     Her grandmother grunts, takes another slice at the earth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     "Show me where."

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

     "There."

     "Show me."

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

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

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

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

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

     "But you didn't.”

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

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

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