Lonely Bones

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

       “Yeah, I feel great.” 

       “Why do you do it?” 

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

       “Well you look great.”

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

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

       She kisses him on the cheek before she leaves.

#

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

       When she wakes, her stomach aches. 

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

The State Trooper’s House

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

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

Hummingbirds

       “Rufous is back!” Blanche shouts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

       “A bit of wine’d be nice.”

       “You always say that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

       Blanche also used to think of it as remarkable.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

       “Blanche…Blanche… Where are you?”

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

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

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

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

       “Where’s Blanche?”

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

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

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

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

       “That she was,” Sally agrees.

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

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

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

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


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

Oma

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

       “Oma, can I help?”   

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

       “Wirklich? Wie?”  Opa asked            

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

       “Good for you,” mother said.

       “Probably the ugly mushy ones,” Aline retorted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

       “Nicht so gut,” I answered.

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

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

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

       “Hast du ein Bruder?”  I asked Oma. 

       “Ja, aber ich habe noch vier Bruder.”   

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

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

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

       “Drei in Stuttgart and eins in Ulm.”  

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

       “When?”

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

       “Am nächsten Wochenende,” Oma answered.

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

       “By car,” Rolf answered.

       “Yay!  On the autobahn!” 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

       “Gutentag, Eckhard,” I said. 

       “Gutentag, Bert.  Sprechen Sie Deutsch?”  

       “Nur ein bischen.”   

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

       Just then, a few other men gathered around Eckhard. 

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

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

       “How do like Germany?”  Friedrich asked. 

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

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

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

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

       “Jawohl, grossonkel.”

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

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

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

       “Ya”, Ich bin sehr hungrig.”

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

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

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

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

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

       “What do you mean?”  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

       “Hi. My name is Bert.”

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

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

       “No. My family lives in Heidelberg.”

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

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

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

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

       “Hi, Bert,” Dieter said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

       “I play with some boys in Munchen.”

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

       “Which brother?”

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

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

       “He died during the War.”

       “Was he a soldier?”

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

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

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

       “We’ll see.”

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

       “Nein Oma,” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

        “Ah, Der Junge Riese.”  

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

       “Dieser?” she asked.

       “Ja Oma, das ist gut.”  

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

***

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

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

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


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

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

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

       “Hello, mom?”

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

       “Is everything alright?”

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

       “Oh, no, I’m so sorry.”

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

       “Did you call Aline?”

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

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

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

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

       “Just last week.”

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


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

Faster Than A Roller Coaster

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

       “It’s after midnight,” I say.

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

       “I need an owl,” he says.

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

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

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

       “That’s no excuse.”

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

       “What kind of piano?” Pierce asks.

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

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

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

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

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~

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

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

       “A party,” she says.

       “Where?”

       “Moose Club.”

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

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

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

       “I’ll come,” Pierce says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

       I don’t know what to do. 

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

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

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

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

       “Time to go,” I say. 

       “No!” Clare says.

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

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

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

       “What about Dad’s solo?” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

~

       “Quick! What’s the bird?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

       “Where’re you going?” 

       He laughs, a giddy sort of laugh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

       “Drive!” Pierce yells.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

       “What have you done?” I whisper.

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

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

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

       Pierce smiles and nods.

~

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

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

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

       I reach for her. 

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

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

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

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

       She spreads open her fingers.

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

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

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

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

A Mad Tea-Party

Happy birthday, Lewis Carroll, born on this day in 1832. Excerpt from Alice in Wonderland:

Lewis Carroll

Alice’s Evidence

‘Here!’ cried Alice, quite forgetting in the flurry of the moment how large she had grown in the last few minutes, and she jumped up in such a hurry that she tipped over the jury-box with the edge of her skirt, upsetting all the jurymen on to the heads of the crowd below, and there they lay sprawling about, reminding her very much of a globe of goldfish she had accidentally upset the week before.

‘Oh, I beg your pardon!’ she exclaimed in a tone of great dismay, and began picking them up again as quickly as she could, for the accident of the goldfish kept running in her head, and she had a vague sort of idea that they must be collected at once and put back into the jury-box, or they would die.

‘The trial cannot proceed,’ said the King in a very grave voice, ‘until all the jurymen are back in their proper places — all,’ he repeated with great emphasis, looking hard at Alice as he said do.

Alice looked at the jury-box, and saw that, in her haste, she had put the Lizard in head downwards, and the poor little thing was waving its tail about in a melancholy way, being quite unable to move. She soon got it out again, and put it right; ‘not that it signifies much,’ she said to herself; ‘I should think it would be quite as much use in the trial one way up as the other.’ 

As soon as the jury had a little recovered from the shock of being upset, and their slates and pencils had been found and handed back to them, they set to work very diligently to write out a history of the accident, all except the Lizard, who seemed too much overcome to do anything but sit with its mouth open, gazing up into the roof of the court.

‘What do you know about this business?’ the King said to Alice.

‘Nothing,’ said Alice.

‘Nothing whatever?’ persisted the King.

‘Nothing whatever,’ said Alice.

‘That’s very important,’ the King said, turning to the jury. They were just beginning to write this down on their slates, when the White Rabbit interrupted: ‘Unimportant, your Majesty means, of course,’ he said in a very respectful tone, but frowning and making faces at him as he spoke.

‘Unimportant, of course, I meant,’ the King hastily said, and went on to himself in an undertone, ‘important — unimportant — unimportant — important — ’ as if he were trying which word sounded best.

Some of the jury wrote it down ‘important,’ and some ‘unimportant.’ Alice could see this, as she was near enough to look over their slates; ‘but it doesn’t matter a bit,’ she thought to herself.

At this moment the King, who had been for some time busily writing in his note-book, cackled out ‘Silence!’ and read out from his book, ‘Rule Forty-two. All persons more than a mile high to leave the court.’

Everybody looked at Alice.

‘I’m not a mile high,’ said Alice.

‘You are,’ said the King.

‘Nearly two miles high,’ added the Queen.

‘Well, I shan’t go, at any rate,’ said Alice: ‘besides, that’s not a regular rule: you invented it just now.’

‘It’s the oldest rule in the book,’ said the King.

‘Then it ought to be Number One,’ said Alice.

The King turned pale, and shut his note-book hastily. ‘Consider your verdict.' he said to the jury, in a low, trembling voice.

‘There’s more evidence to come yet, please your Majesty,’ said the White Rabbit, jumping up in a great hurry; ‘this paper has just been picked up.’

‘What’s in it?’ said the Queen.

‘I haven’t opened it yet,’ said the White Rabbit, ‘but it seems to be a letter, written by the prisoner to — to somebody.’

‘It must have been that,’ said the King, ‘unless it was written to nobody, which isn’t usual, you know.’

‘Who is it directed to?’ said one of the jurymen.

‘It isn’t directed at all,’ said the White Rabbit; ‘in fact, there’s nothing written on the outside.’ He unfolded the paper as he spoke, and added, ‘It isn’t a letter, after all: it’s a set of verses.’

‘Are they in the prisoner’s handwriting?’ asked another of the jurymen.

‘No, they’re not,’ said the White Rabbit, ‘and that’s the queerest thing about it.’ (The jury all looked puzzled.)

‘He must have imitated somebody else’s hand,’ said the King. (The jury all brightened up again.)

‘Please your Majesty,’ said the Knave, ‘I didn’t write it, and they can’t prove I did: there’s no name signed at the end.’

‘If you didn’t sign it,’ said the King, ‘that only makes the matter worse. You MUST have meant some mischief, or else you’d have signed your name like an honest man.’

There was a general clapping of hands at this: it was the first really clever thing the King had said that day.

‘That PROVES his guilt,’ said the Queen.

‘It proves nothing of the sort!’ said Alice. ‘Why, you don’t even know what they’re about!’

‘Read them,’ said the King.

The White Rabbit put on his spectacles. ‘Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?’ he asked.

‘Begin at the beginning,’ the King said gravely, ‘and go on till you come to the end: then stop.’

These were the verses the White Rabbit read: — 

‘They told me you had been to her,

And mentioned me to him:

She gave me a good character,

But said I could not swim.

He sent them word I had not gone

(We know it to be true):

If she should push the matter on,

What would become of you? 

I gave her one, they gave him two,

You gave us three or more;

They all returned from him to you,

Though they were mine before.

If I or she should chance to be

Involved in this affair,

He trusts to you to set them free,

Exactly as we were.

My notion was that you had been

(Before she had this fit)

An obstacle that came between

Him, and ourselves, and it.

Don’t let him know she liked them best,

For this must ever be

A secret, kept from all the rest,

Between yourself and me.’

‘That’s the most important piece of evidence we’ve heard yet,’ said the King, rubbing his hands; ‘so now let the jury — ’

‘If any one of them can explain it,’ said Alice, (she had grown so large in the last few minutes that she wasn’t a bit afraid of interrupting him,) ‘I’ll give him sixpence. I don’t believe there’s an atom of meaning in it.’

The jury all wrote down on their slates, ‘She doesn’t believe there’s an atom of meaning in it,’ but none of them attempted to explain the paper.

‘If there’s no meaning in it,’ said the King, ‘that saves a world of trouble, you know, as we needn’t try to find any. And yet I don’t know,’ he went on, spreading out the verses on his knee, and looking at them with one eye; ‘I seem to see some meaning in them, after all. “ — said I could not swim — ” you can’t swim, can you?’ he added, turning to the Knave.

The Knave shook his head sadly. ‘Do I look like it?’ he said. (Which he certainly did not, being made entirely of cardboard.)

‘All right, so far,’ said the King, and he went on muttering over the verses to himself: ‘“We know it to be true — ” that’s the jury, of course —  “I gave her one, they gave him two — ” why, that must be what he did with the tarts, you know — ’

‘But, it goes on “They all returned from him to you,”’ said Alice.

‘Why, there they are!’ said the King triumphantly, pointing to the tarts on the table. ‘Nothing can be clearer than that. Then again — “before she had this fit — ” you never had fits, my dear, I think?’ he said to the Queen.

‘Never!’ said the Queen furiously, throwing an inkstand at the Lizard as she spoke. (The unfortunate little Bill had left off writing on his slate with one finger, as he found it made no mark; but he now hastily began again, using the ink, that was trickling down his face, as long as it lasted.)

‘Then the words don’t fit you,’ said the King, looking round the court with a smile. There was a dead silence.

‘It’s a pun!’ the King added in an offended tone, and everybody laughed, ‘Let the jury consider their verdict,’ the King said, for about the twentieth time that day.

‘No, no!’ said the Queen. ‘Sentence first — verdict afterwards.’

‘Stuff and nonsense!’ said Alice loudly. ‘The idea of having the sentence first!’

‘Hold your tongue!’ said the Queen, turning purple.

‘I won’t!’ said Alice.

‘Off with her head!’ the Queen shouted at the top of her voice. Nobody moved.

‘Who cares for you?’ said Alice, (she had grown to her full size by this time.) ‘You’re nothing but a pack of cards!’

At this the whole pack rose up into the air, and came flying down upon her: she gave a little scream, half of fright and half of anger, and tried to beat them off, and found herself lying on the bank, with her head in the lap of her sister, who was gently brushing away some dead leaves that had fluttered down from the trees upon her face.

‘Wake up, Alice dear!’ said her sister; ‘Why, what a long sleep you’ve had!’

‘Oh, I’ve had such a curious dream!’ said Alice, and she told her sister, as well as she could remember them, all these strange Adventures of hers that you have just been reading about; and when she had finished, her sister kissed her, and said, ‘It was a curious dream, dear, certainly: but now run in to your tea; it’s getting late.’ So Alice got up and ran off, thinking while she ran, as well she might, what a wonderful dream it had been.

But her sister sat still just as she left her, leaning her head on her hand, watching the setting sun, and thinking of little Alice and all her wonderful Adventures, till she too began dreaming after a fashion, and this was her dream: — 

First, she dreamed of little Alice herself, and once again the tiny hands were clasped upon her knee, and the bright eager eyes were looking up into hers — she could hear the very tones of her voice, and see that queer little toss of her head to keep back the wandering hair that WOULD always get into her eyes — and still as she listened, or seemed to listen, the whole place around her became alive the strange creatures of her little sister’s dream.

The long grass rustled at her feet as the White Rabbit hurried by — the frightened Mouse splashed his way through the neighbouring pool — she could hear the rattle of the teacups as the March Hare and his friends shared their never-ending meal, and the shrill voice of the Queen ordering off her unfortunate guests to execution — once more the pig-baby was sneezing on the Duchess’s knee, while plates and dishes crashed around it — once more the shriek of the Gryphon, the squeaking of the Lizard’s slate-pencil, and the choking of the suppressed guinea-pigs, filled the air, mixed up with the distant sobs of the miserable Mock Turtle.

So she sat on, with closed eyes, and half believed herself in Wonderland, though she knew she had but to open them again, and all would change to dull reality — the grass would be only rustling in the wind, and the pool rippling to the waving of the reeds — the rattling teacups would change to tinkling sheep-bells, and the Queen’s shrill cries to the voice of the shepherd boy — and the sneeze of the baby, the shriek of the Gryphon, and all thy other queer noises, would change (she knew) to the confused clamour of the busy farm-yard — while the lowing16 of the cattle in the distance would take the place of the Mock Turtle’s heavy sobs.

Lastly, she pictured to herself how this same little sister of hers would, in the after-time, be herself a grown woman; and how she would keep, through all her riper years, the simple and loving heart of her childhood: and how she would gather about her other little children, and make their eyes bright and eager with many a strange tale, perhaps even with the dream of Wonderland of long ago: and how she would feel with all their simple sorrows, and find a pleasure in all their simple joys, remembering her own child-life, and the happy summer days.

Southern California, Minnesota

I saw the vents in the heater
turn into orange children
or grey flowers
or something.

And Chinese food containers
crushed together to become 
Styrofoam beads that floated 
out toward the trash islands.

A roller blading Veteran yelled at
a burly mustachioed
cop, pointing from a street sign
to a small red covered notebook.

All courage streamed into the husks 
that blew down from the coconut palm
across the pavement, a symphony 
pulsating in the Don’t Walk signal.

About the Author: Henry Cherry is a journalist and photographer based in Los Angles. His recent story appearing in Slippery Elm has been nominated for a Pushcart and is one of the notable stories in the forthcoming Best American Mystery Stories. He has been a featured reader at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and at Litquake in San Francisco. Always the bridesmaid, he was a finalist for the Stegner Fellowship and a finalist for the PEN/USA Rosenthal Fellowship. He created and wrote the history of jazz column for Offbeat magazine. His work has appeared in JMWW, Scalawag, Cordite Poetry Review, Southwestern American Literature, Slippery Elm Literary Journal, Poydras Review, The Louisiana Review, Artillery Magazine, Los Angeles Review of Books.