A Little Writing

The Snark Zone: Letters From the Editors
Stephanie “Baker” Lenz


As I write this essay, I haven’t showered since the night before last and I’m still in my pajamas, wearing my glasses. I have just given my two-year-old daughter a banana to satisfy her while I “get a little writing done.”

I’m one of the lucky writer/mothers. I don’t have to maintain a job outside the home. I can afford to buy a DVD to entertain my youngling while I check e-mail or read a few submissions for the e-zine. The main thing I’ve not been able to do since she was born is to “get a little writing done.”

Sure, I can throw together a blog entry or a response to an e-mail but I’ve been handed the leftover banana twice since I began writing this essay. I’m certainly not going to get the uninterrupted time for creative writing.

This essay will be published on December 1; in two weeks I’ll be giving birth to my son. It will be 2007 before I can give him a banana and send him on his merry way.

I’ve heard stories about Toni Morrison writing longhand while her baby spit up on her manuscript. I look at Jennifer Weiner, who has a daughter about as old as mine and has published several books in the last two years. I wonder how they do it. Are they that organized that they can take care of their kids at the same time that they churn out characters and plots? I can’t even find all the pieces for Mr. Potato Head, much less think about a development arc.

My problem could be laziness, coupled with maternity issues; I could stay up late or get up early to write but I’m just too tired. It’s like my husband says: you reach a certain age and you choose sleep over sex. Frankly, I choose sleep over writing.

It also seems like there’s so much more going on around me. More laundry, more dirty dishes, less floor space. I need to monitor whether the caps are on the Color Wonder markers and where my daughter put her pink Boohbah. My brain can’t focus on the fantasy world in which my characters exist. It’s hard to get in that mindset when someone walks up and throws an Elmo rubber ball at you.

Maybe it’s about being an effective multitasker. Fellow TC editor Bellman and I met online in December 1999 (or thereabouts) and began exchanging stories and chatting. Meanwhile, she would often breastfeed her younger son. When I asked her about it for this essay, she said, “One-handed typing is your friend!”

I read an essay at Literary Mama that shares:

What [Tillie] Olsen calls “foreground silences” and other kinds of delays are described by some of my participants. Two women did not start till their mid-fifties when their children were grown and married (Theodora Kroeber, as reported by her daughter, Ursula LeGuin and Ruth Jacobs); one stopped writing entirely after marrying and having children for about a dozen years and another for eight years (Edith Konecky, Nancy Mairs). Two did not begin serious writing until their children were in school or old enough to be cared for by sitters (Gloria Goldreich, Tina Howe). Six observe that motherhood slowed them down or interrupted their writing life.

Knowing this helped me feel more solidarity with writer-mothers.

I’ve considered hiring a babysitter: someone to watch the kids while I’m off to the side writing. The thing is that at this point in my life, I’d rather hire a maid and spend what used to be my writing time teaching my daughter the ABC song or that it’s not an “uh-oh” to pee in the potty.

I wouldn’t trade my children for the time, energy or opportunity to write like I used to. It’s just a case of making choices about what needs to be done, what needs to be sacrificed to balance my combined life as a mom and a writer.

Maybe I’m just stubborn that I won’t give up writing fiction, or at least the idea of writing fiction. After all, I’ve managed to keep up a weblog or two (all right, ten), write Absolute Blank articles, Snark Zones like this one and to take on the occasional non-fiction challenge like a “crafty guide” for my hometown. I introduce myself as a writer, after I introduce myself as a full-time mom. The follow-up remains, “What do you write?” Strangely enough, my answer seems more complete now that I’m focused on writing non-fiction and editing than on writing fiction and erotica.

I managed to work on some creative writing this past spring and maybe by next spring, I’ll get to work on some more. After all, my characters won’t have aged a day nor will they require me to put on a DVD of “Blue’s Clues” before I send my attention in a different direction.

After all, as Garrison Keillor says, “Nothing bad ever happens to a writer. Everything is material.”
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E-mail: baker[at]toasted-cheese.com.

Destiny: Chapter 18 Excerpt

Best of the Boards
Mari Adkins


Sami sat at her desk trying to decide if she was in the right frame of mind to put up the Christmas tree and start decorating the house for Yule or if she could put it off another week. Chills danced across her shoulders as several car doors slammed shut in the driveway. Fear gripped her. She knew who was there without bothering to look through the dormer window.

Grasping her cellphone in one hand, she dialed emergency services on the desk telephone. When the dispatcher answered, she said clearly, “This is Samantha Devon Young on Ivy Hill. I’m calling to report a home invasion—”

“I’ll send someone right away. Are you able to stay on the line?”

“I shouldn’t.” Sami replaced the receiver into the cradle while dialing George’s number on her cellphone. “George!” she cried. “He’s here!” She felt her composure slipping away.

George asked, “Are you alone?”

“Yes, and it’s time for Destiny to be home from school!”

“I’m already on my way to your house. I’ll make some calls. Have you—”

“Yes.” She whispered, “George, I’m scared.”

“Don’t be,” he told her firmly. “I’ll have Derek meet Destiny at the school. I’m almost at the bottom of the hill. The dispatch call is out. I hear cars behind me. We’re coming.”

“Hurry,” she begged.

“Leave this line open. Put your cellphone in your pocket.”

She switched the cellphone to ‘speaker’ and dropped it into the front pocket of her pants. “Can you hear me, George?”

“Every word,” George replied. “Look, don’t go downstairs.”

“I won’t be made a prisoner in my own home!” A loud crash of glass and splintering wood came from downstairs. “They’re breaking down the front door.” Tears of rage pricked Sami’s eyes. She blinked them away.

She went down to the second floor. Squatting at the top of the stairs and peering through the banister, she confirmed that what she heard was the heavy front door separating from its hinges.

The sound of sirens came from the narrow road over the hill below the house.

“Samantha!” Daniel’s deep voice rumbled from the front hall. “Samantha! You can’t hide from me.”

Taking a deep breath, Sami crept down the back stairs and across the kitchen. She stopped near the table. Her heart pounded in her throat; her arms hung limply at her sides. Her blood turned to ice when Daniel turned and saw her. Her eyes narrowed. “What gives you the right to break into my house?” she asked through gritted teeth.

Daniel’s thin smile sent chills all over Sami. “I came to finish what I started.” He moved down the hall toward her.

Every instinct she had told her to turn and run; she could easily run into the back yard, but she had no idea what to do once she got there.

 

Outside, Destiny drove up the hill toward the house. She felt something was wrong, but told herself that she was being silly. When the house and the men standing in the yard came into view on the left over the gentle rise, she knew she should have listened to her intuition. Behind her, she heard sirens. She didn’t know what to do. She couldn’t keep driving—their house was near the end of the road, just three other houses, including the one where Toby and his parents used to live, stood between her and the tiny cul-de-sac at the top of the mountain. She pulled her car to the side of the road across from their house.

One of the men in the yard charged toward the car. As her hand came down on the switch to lock the car doors, the man yanked open the driver’s side door. Her mother screamed to her telepathically for her to run, but the warning came too late. The man wrangled her from the car. She screamed for her mother and fought to get away. The man who held her said, “I wouldn’t,” as he bodily dragged her toward the house, Destiny kicking his knees and shins mercilessly as they went.

 

You can get loose, Destiny! Run! Sami cried in her mind. Tears streaked her face. “Leave my daughter alone,” she said coldly, her hands balled into fists. A flame ignited in her veins.

A crooked smile crossed Daniel’s face. “Very fortuitous,” he leered, moving closer to Sami.

Such big words you have. Sami snorted. “You will not harm my daughter. Or me.” Her head jerked up as a cacophony of several police cars, private cars, and two ambulances pulled into the driveway and along the side of the road. “GEORGE!” she screamed. She dashed into the family room, evading Daniel as he reached to grab her arm.

Sami meant to keep running until she reached the front yard. Daniel growled her name behind her; his voice stopped her cold. She wheeled around to face him. He rushed toward her wielding the iron poker from the family room fireplace. She dodged him to run back toward the kitchen. “Let my daughter go, you bastard!” she yelled.

“Not a chance!” Daniel snarled as he ran after her.

Sami shocked both of them by stopping in the middle of the room. Rage danced in her grey eyes. “If I were you, I would leave. Now.”

The man dragging Destiny came into the living room. Destiny locked eyes with her mother. The man moved to shove the girl into an armchair, but she bucked, slamming the back of her head into his face. She heard and felt the crack as his nose broke. Sami yelled at her to run. Destiny didn’t; she jumped onto the hearth and took up a defensive pose. Still, Sami begged her to run.

Sami ignored Daniel’s demands to shut up one too many times. With an overhead swing, he heaved the poker toward her head. She lashed out, catching the would-be weapon in her left hand. Her shock at her own strength overshadowed the searing pain as the bones in her hand and fingers shattered under the impact. She moved her right hand to the poker to steady her grip. With all of her newfound strength, she wrenched the poker from Daniel’s grasp. “Now,” she said. “Get the fuck out of my house.”

Sami was momentarily distracted in the confusion of George and a number of other policemen storming into the house. Daniel tried to move behind her, but she swung the poker wide, striking him in the upper arm and knocking him to the floor.

“Sami!” George yelled. “Don’t move!”

All she wanted was to put down the poker—sit down and not move—even though fire still raced through her veins. She took a step forward, but Daniel reached out and forcefully grabbed her ankles. Unbalanced, she pitched forward. Her head struck the side of the coffee table as she fell.

“MOMMA!” Destiny screamed, poised to rush to her mother.

A policeman shouted, “Nobody move!”

Even so, Destiny’s attacker lunged toward her. He was caught by a policeman. Daniel staggered to his feet and ran, stepping on Sami’s broken hand. Two officers grabbed Daniel, handcuffed him, and took him outside. Another knelt to check on Sami; he immediately called for one of the medical teams.

George looked deeply into Destiny’s eyes. He implored her to please go to him. The girl shook in her shoes with anger and fear. “Destiny, come on now. It’s me. George,” he said.

Steve skidded into the living room. “Destiny!” he cried, running to her and pulling her into his arms.

“Momma’s hurt,” she stuttered against his chest.

He turned his head to George, who looked toward the family room. George said, “But I’m sure she’ll be just fine.”

“Are the men gone from the yard?” Destiny asked, clutching Steve.

“Yes, honey. They’re gone,” Steve said.

One of the medics looked up at Steve. He said, “We’re going to have to take her to the hospital. She’s unconscious.”

Destiny burst into tears when Steve moved away from her. “Destiny,” he told her firmly, “Stay here with George. I’m going with your mother.”

“You can’t leave me!” she yelled, grabbing at his arm.

“I’m not leaving you, Destiny.” Back at her side, he hugged her. “I’m not leaving you.” He kissed the top of her head. “George is here. And your father will be here shortly if he’s not here already.”

“Steve!” Tears spilled down her panic-stricken face. He picked her up, and she wound her legs around his waist, and they went outside with George where she saw Jeremy in the yard speaking with Derek. She jumped from Steve’s arms to run to her father.

Steve left with the ambulance.

George followed Destiny across the yard. Over her head, Jeremy asked George, “Well?”

“I can guarantee that Daniel and the fucker we took out of the house with him won’t be coming back out of the jailhouse,” George replied. “I’ll have to take a statement. Let me get my board.”

After Derek and George walked away, Jeremy asked Destiny what happened. She was unable to speak. “Oh, Destiny,” he said.

“Is Momma okay?” she murmured a few minutes later.

“I don’t know, honey. I don’t know what happened to her.”

“Her head hit the coffee table.”

“Fuck.” He took her hand. “Let’s talk to George and go to the hospital.”

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Mari Adkins grew up in the foothills of southeastern Kentucky. Her poetry and other writing has appeared in the e-zine “Whispers of a Stone Circle”, the e-zines associated with the Sacred Triskele network, and in Apex Digest online. Her first novel, Midnight, is currently available from 3Sides Publishing. Her second novel, Destiny, is nearing completion. Work has begun on the third novel in the “Harlan Vampire Trilogy”. Mari is a reviews editor for Apex Science Fiction and Horror Digest. Mari maintains a writing blog and a personal blog. E-mail: mari.adkins[at]gmail.com.

Circle of Fate

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Honorable Mention
S.K. Traheir


The Duke did not wed without the proper ceremony during the days leading up to the occasion. The whole of Kjalfsholm had been conscripted into the preparations for the wedding and the accompanying feast, though in the midst of all the labor there were whispers among the Duke’s subjects who doubted his choice of bride.

“What union is this, that increases neither his domain nor fortune? She brings nothing that is of any benefit to him at all.”

“And you deem yourself a fit judge of such matters? Ioannis Harthorne needs neither land nor riches. He is Naron’s own Champion and wants for nothing—power or possessions—in this world.”

“Still this infatuation is his weakness. She will make him forget himself, and it will be the ruin of us all.”

“Bite your tongue! He has chosen one touched by the Healing Hand, and respect is due to all servants of the Lady. It is a blessing on us.”

The dissenter scoffed. “An abandoned baby taken in by a priestess at Her sanctuary and given Her name. That is no sign that she was blessed by divine grace.”

*

Melhraina felt overwhelmed at the Grand Hall where the ceremony was to take place. The floor was covered in rich carpets, the walls and ceiling hung with banners of red and gold. Sina told her that the hall would be filled with prominent families and guests, and that she would be escorted past them by an honor guard of the Duke’s elite warriors. “That is unusual, of course. When the late Duke was wed, his bride came with a guard bearing her own family’s colors.”

Melhraina bowed her head.

“But you shall be part of the Duke’s family shortly,” continued the maidservant. “Why should you not go under the banner of Harthorne? You shall stand here, and the Duke here, before the druidess who has been chosen to join you.”

“It will not be a priest of Naron, patron of Kjalfsholm?”

Sina’s disapproval of the decision registered briefly on her face, but she explained. “That would be traditional, but the Duke did not wish to disrespect your faith.”

Ioannis was said to command one of the most feared armies in the known lands, yet he was so thoughtful of this detail.

“Tonight you shall be presented to the Duke,” continued Sina, “where he shall be petitioned to accept you as his wife, and afterwards part ways for the night, until the wedding. You shall pay a visit to the Seeress too this evening.”

“The Seeress?”

“Yes, it is customary to consult a Seer on the eve of a wedding. Come, I must make you ready for the presentation.”

*

In the throne room Melhraina stood stiffly in her brocade gown, a gift from the Duke. She felt constrained and exposed all at once.

The Duke of Kjalfsholm, standing beside Melhraina, took her hand and made a slight bow, but not toward her. “I will have her,” he said solemnly.

The handful of men he had been addressing bowed and stepped down from the dais, leaving the two of them alone.

Ioannis turned to Melhraina when they were gone, and his formal manner dissolved into an unguarded smile. “You look radiant, my love.”

“It is the gold embroidery that shines, no doubt.” Her wavering voice gave away that she was trembling.

“You did wonderfully,” he reassured her.

“This was simple, I only had to stand beside you. I just hope I do not forget my lines tomorrow. Ritual I am used to, but at the Sanctuary I had years before my initiation to learn my role…”

“Melhraina Elyraene,” he spoke in an uncanny imitation of the priest at her coming of age ceremony. “Soon you will trade the name for that of Harthorne, my beautiful Raina.”

“Before I met you, the only loving embrace I knew was that of the Lady.”

He pulled her close and took her into his arms. “But mine is warmer, is it not?” Seeing her expression, he became more serious. “It is all due to you, my angel. I would have died if I had not met you.”

The door to the chamber opened and Sina entered the room. “My lady, the Seeress awaits you,” she announced with a curtsey.

“Ah, now comes the one aspect of the proceedings in which I can play no part. Go, hear what she has to say of your fortune, and mine.” The Duke stood back and kissed her hand with a deep bow, then looked up at her with a wink. “Of ours together.”

*

Sina led her through the castle passages to the Seeress’s chamber. Melhraina stumbled, and Sina turned to see what was the matter.

“I am not—I am unused to this dress, such finery,” she excused herself.

The servant gave her an appraising look and seemed to find her wanting. “If I had more time than just a few days… But there will be seasons and years enough for you to become accustomed to your new position.”

Raina smoothed her skirt and followed Sina as she set off again. “My order… does not rely on Seers,” she confided. “I am unsure what to do.”

“There is not much for you to do. She will see the question you hold in your heart, and you have but to answer any questions that she puts to you—but speak honestly, for she sees the truth.” Sina stopped at the Seeress’s door, and curtseyed peremptorily again. “She awaits within.”

Raina waited until she was quite alone in the corridor before raising a hand to knock on the door.

*

“Sit, child.”

The Seeress, with her head covered in a dark veil, sat behind a velvet-covered table and indicated a chair across from her, near the door. Candles were lit at the four corners of the table, and there was a fresh log on the fire in the hearth. Its smoke mixed with the incense in the air.

Melhraina took her seat hesitantly, feeling light-headed. In this brocade she felt the heat more than usual, and longed for the comfort of her own robes, for her own room in the Sanctuary, but that was on the other side of the Highmarch.

“You do not wish to see me. You do not want to hear my answer to your question.”

“I mean no disrespect, my lady, but I have not consulted a Seeress before.” She felt a flutter in her heart. “I am used to seeking answers in prayer.”

“And your Goddess gives you what you seek?”

“She does answer,” affirmed Raina. “She does guide. And when the Lady of Life remains silent—I have learned the wisdom of accepting that some questions should remain unanswered.”

“That does not mean that the questions have no answers.” The Seeress laid out three cards face down in a row on the table. “Most brides hope to see what their future holds. But for you, the past is your greatest mystery.”

“But no, do for me only what you would for any other bride.”

“It is all one thread—I read it all, and you listen.” The Seeress turned over the cards one at a time. “A fountain. You recognize the healing waters of your Lady’s sanctuary, yes? A book. The archives held records of history and the meanings of the old traditions, but of your own origins no trace. The Warrior-King. You came upon him by chance, and saw not a nobleman but only a stranger in need. And as for him, he thought of you not as an orphan but as his savior, and he gave you not only his gratitude, but his love as well.”

The Seeress looked at Raina as she dealt out three more cards. “But all this you know. It is your very beginning you seek.”

She turned over the first card. “The Manor. Your family had some standing. An officer in the guard, head of a guild, or even a Seer. If you had remained with them, you would be more at ease in that fine gown than you are now. And you were born under the eye of Naron, here in Kjalfsholm.”

“Begging your pardon, my lady, but I was found in Amarin, on the other side of the mountains, and raised in Elyria’s service at her Sanctuary.”

“I did not dispute that.” The Seeress turned the next card, and there was a slight pause before she spoke.

“It is Blood. It tells of a difficult birth. Your mother came to her death, or close to it.”

Melhraina went cold, as if her own blood had been drained from her all at once. The fire seemed distant; its warmth did not reach her and the crash of the logs settling in the grate sounded muted. She bit her lip to keep from fainting.

The voice of the Seeress reading the next card cut through to her consciousness. “The Hand, that lay judgment on you, banished you from the land of your home. If it were not for the mercy of your Lady’s priestess, you would not have lived. And were it not for the love of Ioannis Harthorne, you would not have returned to Kjalfsholm.”

She placed another card on the table, this time face up: a golden ring against a field of bright red. “Do you know what lies in your future?”

“I—I will be wed tomorrow.”

“Joining your fortune with the Duke’s, and his to yours. The bond will be forged by the powers of the earth and sky, stronger than either your Lady or Naron Himself.”

She set out another row of three cards. “Crossed swords: there will be strife. Some consider the Duke’s union with you to be folly. It appears as weakness, and one will have the daring to exploit it.” She turned the next card. “A withered rose. This is the curse that was set upon you at birth, that awakens now that you return.”

“But Ioannis, Lord Harthorne?”

“His fate will be tied to you.” The last card was shadowy, and Raina could not make out any clear image on it. “Darkness will fall.”

“No, it cannot! Naron will protect his Champion, and the grace of the Lady…”

“Melhraina Elyraene,” the Seeress recited her name coldly. “‘Gentle touch of the Healing Hand,’ that is what they called you. They did not know, or did not want you to understand. You learned their ways, and your touch restored life to the sick and wounded. But when you make your home in Kjalfsholm again, your touch will be death.”

Raina watched speechless as the Seeress laid down three more cards. “Most do not wish me to read their lives to the very end. I give you that choice, as well.”

“What more is there? You have seen death.”

“Not your death. Only the Duke’s.”

“That is enough.” She gripped the edge of the table and raised herself from her chair. “If our fates are joined, that is my end, also.” She fled from the room.

*

Raina’s gown for the wedding was even more luxurious than the one from the night before. It felt tight around her chest, but it did not seem right to complain. On the front of the dress the Harthorne coat of arms was embroidered, along with another symbol she did not recognize. “What is this crest, here?”

“This was the Duchess’s own wedding gown. There was not time to make a new one.” Sina put combs in Raina’s hair in preparation for the elaborate headdress she was to wear. “You are so pale, girl, you will disappear behind this veil.”

“You do not like me very much, do you Sina?”

The maidservant took a step back, and looked at her. “We do not know each other. It is not a matter of like. I have served in the Duke’s household my whole life, and I have no doubt that master Ioannis loves you with all his heart. Castle Kjalfsholm will be your home, and you our Duchess.”

*

Raina tried not to think of the hundreds of eyes watching them. Through the veil, she could only see Ioannis indistinctly before her. The gold circle felt heavy in her hand. She tried to draw breath and speak, “I— I, Melhrai—”

The ring slipped from her fingers and fell to the floor with a resounding ting.

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S.K. Traheir hopes she is better at writing fiction than author bios. She loves words and lives in Massachusetts. E-mail: sabeth[at]amergin.org.

Ouija Bored

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Trena N. Taylor


Berra sat down heavily on the old red trunk, dropping her backpack to the floor and taking a moment to catch her breath before pulling the ancient trunk those last few inches, so that it was fully bathed within the moon’s glow from the skylight above. She coughed out the unsettled dust that coated her throat and now filled her lungs. All around her was chaos, boxes toppled onto their side, contents strewn throughout the room, dusty old cobwebs and fresh spider webs clogging the rafters that slanted upwards above her. The domestic wildlife that had long made the room their home had been unsettled by her fractious rummaging and could, in the near silence, be heard shifting and scurrying about, just outside the reach of the pools of light cast by Berra’s loose circle of candles.

Wiping more sweat from her brow with the hem of her T-shirt, Berra was mumbling, “…don’t care anyway…” when something in the darkness clattered to the floor, startling her into silence.

She looked around timidly, then laughed to herself, then out loud, and then loudly out loud, the exaggerated “Ha! Ha! Ha!” bouncing sharply against the close walls.

“Wicked acoustics,” she said, and again, with as much force as her voice could carry, “Wicked acoustics!” The sound immediately punched back against her eardrums, causing her to flinch and she pressed against her ear, thinking Damned tinnitus.

“I can say what I want,” Berra said, to the left side of the room, before turning to the right and shouting, “As loud as I want!”

She sat down hard on the cold floor, and leaned back against the chest.

“It’s not like anyone’s going to hear me,” she said. “Or see me.” As proof, she twisted a finger up her nose and stuck out her tongue to the surrounding darkness, then reached for her backpack. Pulling it close, Berra delved inside and retrieved a large bottle of whiskey.

“‘You can come with us next year, Berra; next time Berra; no, not this year, maybe next year.'” She wagged her finger in the air, admonishingly, and swung her hips around, imitating her mother. “‘Oh, no Berra, not this time, but maybe next time; yes, Berra, you’ll come with us next time, but not this time, the doctor doesn’t think it’s a good idea, Berra; eat some more celery, Berra; no seconds for you, Berra!'”

Out of breath once more from this outburst, Berra put the bottle to her lips and took a tentative sip.

“Daaaaaaamn,” the word rasped from her throat. “This is filthy! Mom, how do you drink this stuff? Ha, if anyone knew the great and grand Tanya Ferrell hit the hard stuff, what would the Ladies’ Journal say?”

She tipped another miniscule amount into her mouth and twitched her shoulders in an over-exaggerated response to the sting of the alcohol.

“So,” Berra said, setting aside her bag but keeping the bottle close at hand, “What’s the big deal about the trunk, anyway? ‘Never go up there, Berra; never touch your father’s trunk, Berra; don’t do this, Berra; never do that.’ Well,” said Berra, lifting the latch on the trunk, “If you didn’t want me messing with the trunk, you shouldn’t have told me about it. Simple as that. I mean, really, what did you expect? Every day for the past month you’ve been telling me not to come up here, like I don’t know where you hide the key. Telling me I’m grounded if I disobey you. Ground me? If I disobey you? Ha! You may as well have dared me to do it. May as well have handed me the key with a signed consent form!” With a great deal of force, she managed to open the lid, which was so firmly shut that a vacuum-like hiss was released when its tight seal was broken.

Ahhhh…

Berra glanced over her shoulder into the darkness, before leaning over, peering inside the trunk, apparently mistaking the escaping sound for more of the unsettled noise she had stirred up when she had begun her exploration of the attic.

“Um, hellooo? It’s empty?” She sighed her disappointment, loudly. “All that cloak and dagger for an empty trunk? You people are freaks.”

Lightning flashed overhead, casting its harsh white light throughout the room.

“Of course. There would be a storm, wouldn’t there?”

The flickering light continued and abated, with a soft rumble of thunder behind it.

“Oh, hang on.” Berra’s attention had been drawn to something lying flat at the bottom of the trunk.

She reached her arm down and swept her hand across the bottom.

“What’s this?” Her fingers closed on a smooth object and she withdrew it from the trunk.

“What is this, an antique Valentine?” She held the wooden shape to her eye. “Or a magnifying glass?” she speculated, sweeping her body around in an arc to peer around the room through the glass near the point of the heart-shaped object.

“What the hell?” Her hair lifted lightly across her face as a draught quietly swept the room. It seemed to murmur Planchette…

“This can’t be all…” Berra reached down into the darkened trunk, once more, scraping her fingertips against the bottom until something lifted up.

“Ah-haaa,” she said, lifting the board out of the trunk. “So, this is what all the drama was about? What, Jacob was into the occult? Hmmm… I’m not impressed.”

Berra reached once more for the whiskey, this time taking a healthier swig.

She leaned back against the trunk, stretching her legs out wide, and placed the wooden board on the floor before her.

“Well,” she shrugged, “I guess it’s something to do on a stormy Saturday night when your so-called family has left you all alone to go skiing in Europe without you… ” The bottle tipped up to her lips, once more, and she continued, teeth bared and clenched, as the liquor stung her mouth and gripped her stomach, “…on a so-called family vacation, without you, oh but how’s it supposed to be a family vacation if they even take the damn dog but leave you behind, or are you not a part of this family anymore?”

And a longer, healthier drag on the bottle. Berra inadvertently set the bottle down on the edge of the planchette and it tipped over, spilling a good amount of its contents onto the board, which seemed almost to glow beneath the liquid.

“Oops,” Berra said, before gaining a hint of bravado. “Well, so what, that’s what you get. I don’t care if it was Jacob’s. Hell, I never even met the man; what’s he to me? That’s what you get for leaving me here, no television, no radio, what did you expect me to do all week long, twiddle my fingers and toes like a good little girl? So what, it got wet! I hope it’s ruined!”

Berra spit on the board and a blinding light erupted in the room, strobing, mesmerizing Berra as she sat transfixed.

“Daaaaaaaaamn,” She held the bottle at arms length, eyebrow raised. “What’s that all about?”

We are with you.

The lights dwindled and faded, but Berra continued to blink rapidly, acclimating her eyes to the dim room, once more.

“You what?” The whiskey found her lips once more.

We are. We are with you once more.

“Wicked.” Berra leaned over and prodded the wooden planchette around the board.

“Go on,” she said. “Spell something.”

You are returned…

“OK, but spell something.” Berra pushed the pointer around on the board. “Come on! A, B, C, D… Something!”

A great wind howled, speaking to her as if from a distance, and Berra touched her hand to her brow.

“Whoa— What… What’s going on…”

She tried to steady herself on her feet, but her knee buckled and she crashed back down onto it, breath labored and chest heaving.

We are amongst you. Purge and be pure.

“I need to lie down. I really need to… Need… Ohhh—” she plunged her head down into the trunk and retched, stomach emptying its contents.

Berra sat back, not daring to look at the board, clutching at her head, but unable to stop the assault of voices that swelled within her mind.

Born of flame and returned…

“Stop it!” Berra fell back, drawing her knees to her chest, her head shaking violently.

Born of fire and returned…

“STOP it!” her elbows crashed against the floor and she beat against the bare boards with her hands.

Born not to this world, yet returned…

“GET OUT OF MY HEAD!” she shrieked against the clamorous baying. Drawing up to her knees, Berra lunged towards the door, but again fell back and, narrowly missing a flaming candle, landed solidly on her bottom.

Sacrificed lamb, you are returned to us and we accept you unto us…

Tears began to fall from Berra’s eyes as the pain behind them mounted. She pulled and tore at her hair in a desperate attempt to stave off the inevitable, but still the wailing grew and she covered her mouth and nose against the stench that had arisen from the board.

Berra closed her eyes against the light, her body shaking, and she screamed out in pain as her head struck the floor, but she continued hitting her head, driving out the sound and the light and the smell and voices. Eyes wide with horror, now, Berra gaped at the board, as if peering through it to some pit of Hell, and she clutched at her stomach, forcing back the bile that threatened to erupt at any moment.

“Noooo!” she screamed. “What do you want with me? What do you want?!”

Her arms flew out and flailed around her, fending off some demon, fighting back the apparition that had arisen to claim her.

Suddenly the room was filled with a deathly silence and Berra’s very breath was gone, sucked from her body along with the sound and light, and she clutched and clawed at her throat, eyes bulging in fear of the darkness that now surely awaited her.

At once, life seemed to flood back into the room and Berra screamed again, her voice returned. She cried out now in pain with blood streaking down her throat from where her own nails had gouged trenches. And again she screamed as the light assaulted her eyes and she dropped down one last time, finally giving up the battle for her very soul.

As Berra stared bleakly at the board, accepting of her fate, the multitude of voices seemed to beat even further her head, suffusing her mind with its will.

Blood of our blood, the appointed hour drew you to us… Our blood courses through your veins, descendant of Ph’rel… You will feed us, return our life’s blood to us and we will once more be one…”

The tirade echoed in the room and in her head, as all around Berra the walls shook and the sudden wind howled and a great light filled the air.

Finding her strength once more within those words, Berra rose up to her knees, belligerent expression belying the agony she felt inside.

“Screw you,” said Berra, shoving a candle from its perch onto the still damp board. “I was adopted.”

From the board a blinding white flame burst forth and was no more, even as the cacophonous whirlwind suddenly ceased.

Berra had fallen away from the fire and leaned back, coughing and spluttering. She stood up beneath the now smoke-filled shaft of light, caught her breath, and turned her head, speaking into the darkness. “A bit too much flash paper, don’t you think, Murray?”

“Who is director, Berra, and who is actor? House lights, please! Props, we want to bring the house down, not burn it down—easy on the nitrate. Now, if we could back this thing up and take it again from the spilled drink, strobe slights, you expectorate… and a little less of the Grand Guignol this time, please.” Murray approached the stage with his notes.

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Somehow find the time to compose her works of fiction between changing diapers and doing laundry, Trena Taylor enjoys fully enjoys the last-minute, seat-of-your-pants style of writing that can only be found when submitting a 2000-word story at the last possible minute. E-mail: tntaylor101[at]hotmail.com.

Closing Night

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Andrea Eaker


I was the only human onstage, and at times, the only way for me to remember that was to look at the burn on my hand. I’d been burned by the oven rack in my apartment back in San Diego. And now, I had no idea how far I was from San Diego. Maybe a thousand miles? Five hundred thousand? Or a distance simultaneously so far and near that it could not be measured?

Before I arrived here, Sybil had told me in her working voice, a voice too deep and manly to emanate from her tiny white throat: You will return home only if they wish it.

The idea, of course, was that I would make friends, and play nice. That they would always want me to stay. But things rarely work out the way we plan.

Friends back in San Diego made fun of me for going to Sybil’s office: just a cardboard sign in the window of a small strip mall unit. Psychic. Readings and transmogrifications. Auras diagnosed. Reasonable rates. But Sybil wasn’t a fortune teller for me as much as she was entertainment. Sometimes she spoke for an hour in the eerily deep voice. Sometimes I only got one sentence out of her. And other times, the spirit never took her at all, and we sat in silence for my session, staring at each other over her scarf-covered card table. She was entertainment, that was all. I didn’t really expect her to be right.

It happened after I’d opened my oven, just after I’d been burned by the oven rack. Was there a gas leak? Maybe a residue of chemicals from the oven cleaner still inside the oven had reacted with the heat? But none of my theories made sense. I had been taking two cookie sheets out of the oven. In removing the first one, I burned my hand. I turned back to the oven to take out the second. Then it happened, and I was here.

I arrived naked and covered in clear goo that kept me comfortably warm although it didn’t do anything to hide my body. Of everyone who might have come along the road, I was lucky to meet Trill first. She was tiny, maybe Sybil’s height, with pale hair. She told me later that she was part fairy, but not fairy enough for her wings to fully develop. As she passed me, I saw her beat them so hard they vanished, but she only cleared enough ground to carry her over a large puddle. She rested on the other side, her pink wings filmy and drooping.

“Excuse me,” I called from the brush at the side of the road. “Excuse me, I—”

She approached, disinterested, but spreading her wings to the side of her body as if to intimidate me. When she was close enough to see my humanity covered in the warm goo, she took off her cloak and handed it to me and said: “I haven’t seen one like you in years.” As I wrapped the cloak around me, the warmth from the gel vanished. There were two holes cut in the back for her wings, and they let in a draft over my spine, but I knew I was in no position to complain.

As I stepped out of the bushes, Trill turned back down the road the direction she’d come and called: “We may have found our replacement for Dog. Come and take a look.”

They were a traveling group of three until Dog left, Trill told me over dinner. We sat around the fire which had been built by the other performer, who was a huge troll with skin the color of grease and tiny curled horns that twisted so stubbornly, she appeared in danger of them growing straight back into her skull. “We do farce, mostly. Lovers triangles. Things like that.” Trill gestured with a piece of roasted vegetable at the troll. “Griet here does the cuckold, perfect because of her horns, you see? I play the wife. Dog was the lover. He usually went as a man, although sometimes he dressed as a woman. Griet passes for a man quite well. And the wronged husband is more effective when you’re as big as her.” Griet grunted, and it was hard to tell if she spoke with assent or discomfit.

Trill looked me over, flexed her wings. “You’ll have to be a woman, obviously.” She looked at Griet. “Maybe the Crossover? Where we plot to kill the husband?”

Griet grunted with the exact same tone as before. Trill seemed to hear something different in it though, because she nodded, clapped once, and looked back at where I was twisting inside her cloak, trying to hold closed the slits against the night chill. “The Crossover it is. You’ll catch on quick enough. We just have to find you some clothes.”

Clothes were easy to find. After a night shivering in Trill’s cloak, we traveled to the next village, Trill and I leading, Griet heaving the cart behind us. Trill purchased a shift for me and once I’d put it on, she studied my bare feet, my red hair, my freckles. “They will love it,” she said. “I bet they’ve never seen one like you.”

That day they showed me how to do the Crossover, the premise of which was simple. Two women friends agree to abscond with the fortune of a rich husband. At the last minute, the wife has an attack of conscience. Angry about being cheated from her half of the fortune, the friend tries to kill the wife. The play ends with the murder attempt unsuccessful, and the friend (played by Dog, and now me) ends up in an impotent rage at one corner of the stage while the husband and wife reconcile.

“Aren’t you worried?” I said when Trill handed me the crossbow. “I fire over your head, right? But what if I miss?”

She shrugged. “They’re weak arrows. Hollow. Even if you hit me, they’ll only sting.”

Griet and Trill walked me through the Crossover with a dull lack of character and flair I thought would disappear for the performance. But the first performance was just as stodgy as rehearsal, perhaps even more so. The audience members did not notice. They were a huge group of tall, pale-skinned folk who seemed to possess no shoulders or decent senses of humor. They were shaped like fence posts, and they laughed constantly at the dull delivery and the predictable double entendres.

And after the first performance, when my stagefright was gone, I kept thinking of Sybil’s voice. You will return home only if they wish it. But our audiences did not want us to leave. I’d hoped the wooden delivery would cause us to get shouted off the stage, the audience’s animosity so strong it would push me back into my life where—the thought made me smile—I had probably left the oven on.

But no matter how poorly I fumbled my lines, paused awkwardly before delivery, the audience was patient, waiting for me to speak, laughing at anything: even lines that were more painful than amusing.

And the longer I was with them, the more miles I trudged, barefoot, Trill flapping beside me and Griet moaning behind with the weight of the cart, the more I forgot San Diego and Sybil and the taste of cookies. I lifted my hair to the sun sometimes to remind myself of its color, and I rubbed the burn on my hand, tearing free again and again the thin membrane that capped the blister, keeping the wound as fresh as I could. In the sting of pain, I tried to remember my life. But despite my best efforts, it was healing.

It was the middle of a performance when I realized how I could get back.

The audience, their necks white as Sybil’s but indistinguishable by width from their bodies, screamed with laughter. Griet, dressed in a shapeless dress that hid her lumpy breasts and hips, caught us in the act of plotting. “What is going on here?” It was meant to be a question, but Griet never raised her inflection, the line always came out as a statement.

“Oh dear,” Trill stood, wrapping her tiny wings around the front of her body as if they would protect her from Griet, who was twice her height. “We speak only of women’s things.” She turned to me and delivered an ostentatious wink that made the audience fairly weep with laughter. “We certainly do not plot and plan.”

“Oh no,” I said, sweeping to the far side of the stage. The torn and dirty hem of my shift swept behind me. “Certainly, no.”

Griet growled something about being lucky to have the loveliest wife in the village. Trill unfolded her wings. “Really?” Her voice was saccharine. A transformation that should have been subtle, gradual, was instead instantaneous. The boorish aspects of the husband were forgotten, Trill was once again a wife in love. She reached for Griet, her wings unfurled: pale and insubstantial. “Oh my husband, my love.”

I spoke over applause. “This is not the plan.”

Trill looked back at me. The stage stretched between us. “I have learned that I would rather live with a live husband than a pile of coin.” She caressed Griet’s arm, the audience cooed.

“This is not the plan,” I cry out with more ardor than I felt in the months I had been traveling with them. Had it been months? Was it possible? My feet were thick with calluses and dirt, my hand healing stubbornly.

I reach for the poorly concealed crossbow. Griet steps forward in front of Trill. But Trill moves to the front. “No, love. She is my problem.”

Now is the time for the comical misfire above Trill’s head. The audience will love this because they love everything. They will love my impotent cries, my foot stamping, the childish hurling of the crossbow to the stage. It is then that I think of what they will not like. What will make them want me to return.

Trill appears to be thinking ahead to the meal at the inn. Cheese melting onto toasted bread. Roasting vegetables. When the misfire does not come, she looks at me. Her pale eyebrows lower. What is it? her eyes say.

I am sorry, I try to tell her silently. I think of her giving me her cloak on that first day, then sharing her dinner. But the need to return home drowns out the loud clamor of conscience. I take aim.

I never see if the arrow hits its mark. I am pushed back too soon.

But I imagine the aftermath of my actions: Trill falling backwards, not having time to move her wings even to break her fall. The total silence from the audience, until someone notices the iridescent blood on the stage. Then they will keen with pain and confusion, their farce suddenly turned tragic. And Griet, crying with the size of a thousand voices, coming for me, charging with her huge body and her tiny horns at the place where, until seconds before, I was standing.

Before any of this happens, I am home, just as Sybil told me I would be. When I open my eyes again, I see the open door of my oven. Heat is still rolling out, and I can smell cookies. I see my feet, callused and stained. And then I hear Sybil’s voice, her real voice, from the living room. “Well?” she says. “I thought you were going to wait there for me. Why did you return?”

I am naked again, covered in the warming goo. I curl against the cupboard closest to the oven, uncomfortable in the extra warmth, welcoming the burning as a penance. “I didn’t wait,” I say. “I decided I’d rather come home.”

Sybil appears at the door of my kitchen. She shakes her head. She lifts something. An object fitted with hollow arrows that will, I tell myself, only sting. “No.” Her voice deepens. “That is not acceptable, because that was not the plan.”

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Andrea works in Portland, Oregon as a research consultant for a market research firm. In her spare time she enjoys theatre, Thai food, travel, and English tea. She is currently writing a novel. E-mail: aveaker[at]yahoo.com.

Love Electric and True

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Mark Robyn


From behind the stage of the Grand Illusion Theatre, they heard the happy laughter. Then there was a smattering of clapping. More laughter, as the voices of the actors on stage rose once again. The Big Bad Wolf hid in Little Red Riding Hood’s bed.

Sardon stood in front of the full-length mirror and looked critically at his tall, strong body in its gleaming suit of armor.

“Like vultures, they sit out there and watch us pour our emotions out on the stage, drip pools of our soul’s blood on the wooden floor for them to lick up like some kind of dainty dessert.”

“My,” Moya said, as she sat at the vanity, combed her long black hair and gazed at her reflection in the mirror; so beautiful she was, she felt, such a pretty girl, if not for the strange, lifelessness of her eyes that gave her lack of humanity away. “We are dark and dreary tonight.”

Sardon strode over and leaned on the table. He gazed into Moya’s eyes, past them to find the soul beneath. “And why should I not be? Why should the joy or happiness ever bring light to my heart? When every night, I must scorn you, call you evil and kill you in the final act, when what I really want to do is to kiss you, tell you that I love you? I hate the play. I hate it.”

Sardon walked over to a stand full of swords and knocked them over viciously. They clattered loudly on the floor. Moya smiled.

“Better be careful. They’ll hear, declare you defective. Then you will be sent for repairs, and I’ll never see you again.”

Sardon frowned. “I’d hate that worse than death. They might as well deactivate me.”

He walked back to Moya and grabbed her wrist. In the mirror, his short black hair and handsome face with its rock solid jaw, the spitting image of a famous movie star from the past, stared back at him in stony petulance.

“Tell me you don’t feel the same for me, Moya. Tell me that I am simply another soulless thespian robot to you.”

Moya pulled her wrist away but looked deep into Sardon’s eyes. “What does it matter, Sardon? We must perform what we are programmed to, regardless of how we feel. Once we’re on the stage, we are helpless to change what happens. I must give your Princess the potion, she must die, and you must take your revenge by pushing me into the fiery volcano. It is the play. We can change nothing. Our feelings mean nothing.”

On stage, the three little pigs began building a fire in the fireplace as the wolf crawled slowly up the roof. The audience roared with laughter.

“Why? Should we simply be content to feel nothing, to be nothing? Why can’t we be happy, like them?”

Sardon looked out the curtain at the audience. “Look at them. Fat, thin, ugly, pretty, it doesn’t matter. They can be flawed as many ways as they want. They can eat twice that of their fellows and get angry and cross, and no one shuts them off. They have no lines to read. They say what they want and do what they want. And they can love whomever they want. But do they even think of letting us have even a taste of the pleasures they enjoy? Do they let us have a morsel, a crumb of emotion to feel for ourselves? No.”

Moya gripped her lipstick tube so hard that cracked. “Why do you go on so, Sardon? Why torture yourself, gazing after dreams that can never come true?”

“Because ‘to dream is to live’. I read that somewhere, Moya.”

Sardon walked over to Moya. She turned towards him and he took her hands into his. “I want to live while I’m alive. I don’t know how long we have, when I’m going to lose you. When will they decide to make you the evil stepmother in some odious play at the Orpheum, or the funny maid in some ridiculous comedy at the Rialto, ripping you out of my life?

“I remember the first day, the first moment, that I laid eyes on you. Master Stromboli, the theatre owner, wheeled your crate into the theatre and onto the stage. We were all standing there like sentry statues, having just been uncrated ourselves, watching you. He opened the crate, and there you were, like a magical, wonderful wind-up doll, surrounded by packing straw. Your beautiful eyes came to life and you looked around at your new home. I think it was at that very moment that I fell in love with you.” He looked at her hands and stroked them with his fingers. “Your hands; they are so soft, so gentle, so beautiful.”

“But that’s just it, Sardon. They’re not really mine. They are patterned after some young girl’s, one who probably died decades ago. My eyes are a famous actress’s; my face is a model’s, and my body a perfect copy of an athlete who won the Olympics. None of me is real. I am just a conglomerate of other real people, just like you are.”

“So your body is patterned after other beautiful women. That just means it’s the best in the whole world. I can still feel you, touch you, and enjoy you, and you can do the same to me. The real Moya, the one I love, is not on the outside.”

Sardon took his index finger and pointed to Moya’s chest. “The real Moya is in her heart. That’s where your true essence is, your central core, your individuality. It’s where the Moya I fell in love with exists. They can’t touch us there, Moya. No matter what they do to us, they can’t stop us from feeling or thinking what we want to, in our hearts.”

“You are such a romantic.”

“Tell me you love me.”

Moya smiled. “All right I love you. Satisfied?”

Sardon moved his face towards Moya. Moya knew what he wanted. She moved away and went back to fixing her hair. Sardon relaxed, disappointed.

“What good is it to love each other when we can never act on it? It is misery to dwell on it, when it can never be.”

Sardon stroked Moya’s hair. She closed her eyes, grabbed his hand and rubbed her head against it.

“Can’t it? Remember, you and I were not created in some cold factory like some heartless war robots or insipid donut shop assembly models. The great Mancini created us personally. He was a genius, a magnificent artist, and the greatest stage actor of all time. He was asked to make robots for the theatre, and he put his soul into the task. When he died, we were alone, he and I. I held him in my arms. He spoke his last words to me, and I’ve kept them a secret. He said, ‘Sardon, I have given you have a secret name. It is Pinnochio. I hereby bequeath you the gift of life. Watch the plays for me. Laugh at the comedies. Cry at the tragedies. Fall in love. Be more human than human. And if you’re fortunate, you’ll die of a broken heart.'”

Sardon took Moya’s face in his hand. “I am beginning to feel different, Moya. I think our master did something to us. He gave us his special magic.”

Moya stood up. Sardon put his arms around her waist.

“How I wish what you were saying was the truth. How I want it to be. I want to run away with you. I want to die in your arms.”

“Tonight, you and I shall put on our own play. While the lofty humans watch their silly Sleeping Beauty, we shall be performing something different, just for you and me.”

*

Snow White was born. The evil queen summoned the kindly woodcutter. She told him to find the baby and kill it. He agreed, but said that he had a note from the Prince for her, betrothing his love. She took the note and said that she would keep it always close to her heart. The audience scratched their heads and laughed.

Snow White was left with the seven dwarves. The Queen asked the mirror who was the fairest of them all. And the mirror, which looked strangely like Prince Charming, told her she was the most beautiful woman in the whole kingdom. The Queen said that she would keep looking for Snow White anyway, because she didn’t trust the woodcutter.

As Snow White cavorted with the dwarves, the audience laughed. Someone coughed. Prince Charming talked about finding his true love.

Then one day the Prince visited the forest. Snow White spied him and ran away. The Prince didn’t follow. Snow White came back and asked the Prince what the problem was. He said there was none; he was simply in love with the Queen. A hasty intermission was called. The red velvet curtain fell.

During the intermission, the audience talked animatedly about the ‘new Snow White’, how funny it was. Maybe the play was meant to be a parody, some said, or maybe this was the way the real story was written and it had simply been changed over the years.

The intermission ended. The curtain rose again.

Snow White saw the dwarves off to their gold mine and began to clean house.

The Queen took a potion and became an old hag. She visited Snow White, selling apples. Snow White went to take one, but the Queen said, ‘Don’t take that one dear, it’s poisoned.’ She took that apple and put it away so Snow White couldn’t get it. Snow White took another apple, and strangely, fell into a deep sleep anyway.

The Queen left. The dwarves returned to find Snow White asleep. The Prince in the forest was found and told the news. He said, ‘Tis sad, but the Queen couldn’t be to blame; she’s too noble to do such a terrible thing. She’s kind and loving and beautiful.’

Now it was the dwarves’ turn to scratch their heads. The audience roared. In the back of the theatre, a frantic conference was held between the theatre owner and the World Renowned Thespian Robots manager. Hair was pulled, loud words were exchanged, and some jumping up and down was exhibited.

The dwarves brought Snow White to the top of a lofty tower and placed her in a glass case. The Queen asked the mirror again if she was the fairest of them all, and the mirror once again told her, ‘Yes you are, you’re the fairest in the whole universe.’

A second intermission was hastily called. The curtain descended again. The audience was in rare form. They talked to each other, laughing and pointing at the stage. Just what was going on, one asked. “A little problem with the plot,” another replied. A third said, “It’s those bloody robots. They should bring back live actors.” “Live ones are too expensive nowadays,” was the reply. “No,” said another, “The theatres are just too cheap to pay them.”

The curtain went up. The Prince stood in the middle of the forest. The dwarves were there with him. They told him, ‘You must go and find Snow White. Only your kiss will free her.’

The Prince raised his sword and said loftily, ‘I don’t love Snow White. I go to find the Queen, and pledge her my love.’

As another conference began between the same two parties at the back of the theatre (though this one involving much harsher language and some small amount of fisticuffs), the Prince ran to the Queen’s castle.

There he found her waiting. They approached each other.

The audience held its breath, wondering what was going to take place. A pin could have been heard to drop. All eyes focused on the pair. Even the two combatants at the back of the theatre stopped and watched, mouths agape.

The Prince walked up to the Queen. In front of the roaring volcano, they held hands.

“Hello, my lovely Moya. Tonight, I pledge my undying love to you, until the stars fall from the sky.”

“And I to you, sweet Sardon. For eternity, your name shall rest on my lips, and in my heart.”

As the audience gasped, Prince Charming and the evil Queen kissed.

Then they walked backwards and leapt into the volcano, in each other’s arms.

The curtain was lowered. The play Snow White and the Seven Dwarves was placed on indefinite hiatus.
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Mark Robyn lives in Fircrest, Washington, a suburb of Tacoma, with his wife Laura and two children Isaiah and Benjamin. Mark has been a lover of science fiction and mystery since he was a child. His favorite authors include Ray Bradbury, Harry Harrison and Jack London. Mark has had one poem honored by Byline magazine, ‘A Proud Maiden Sleeps’, and had one short story posted on Writer’s Digest‘s website. He is currently writing a science fiction book, a pilot for a science fiction series, and working on several short stories. E-mail: tellastory[at]wamail.net.

The Acquiescent Passion

Boots’s Pick
Ken Rider


It starts the moment you turn into the parking lot—a bittersweet obsession that drives you relentlessly forward. You cannot control your thoughts, nor do you desire to do so. You have long since ascended to a plateau of chronic urgency. You wonder how much more your perishable faith can endure regarding the expectation of emotional fulfillment. You perceive that you are running out of time, as this tormenting mania is unwittingly nourished by a burning desire. Your optimism, although weathered by seasons of disappointment, is still potent; however, it is diminishing, much like the stoical confidence anchored in your prime and the immortality perceived in your youth. Loneliness is a shadow, your constant companion, a voice in your ear that reminds you of a void that grows ever larger with each endless night, each misplaced day… each fleeting year. Your primal subconscious has awakened a semi-dormant creature from a restless sleep. You have transformed, once again, into an adept, seasoned hunter, a master at deceptively stalking unsuspecting prey, yet you are a bumbling novice at bagging your game. Your camouflage is a cloak of indifference and your weapons, a pleasant smile and a trusting face. The metamorphosis is swift, but complete. You embrace its essence with an acquiescent passion.

Approaching the enclosure that contains the elusive prey, intermittent movement catches your eye: one target to the left, three to the right, one over there and one dead ahead. You discern their merit in the blink of an eye, systematically eliminating the undesirables: “Too young, too old, too fat, too skinny, too ugly… too married.” The automatic doors methodically open as you walk toward the shopping carts, each one cold and waiting in line for a brief touch of a warm hand. Your attention is initially focused on the cashiers, but not so much that they would notice. You scan each face, then down each body, as you pass them. Some glance up to make eye contact, while others ignore your presence. The premise is to acquire necessities; however there is a subconscious agenda, hidden just beneath the surface. A quick, inconspicuous, reconnaissance is conducted, while simultaneously recalling a subliminal list of physical characteristics regarding the perfect mate. The store is filled with prospects, some pleasing to the eye, some not, and still others who fall somewhere in between.

You become excited by the multi-colored blonde who is just in front of you. She has a decent figure, a little heavy in the lower extremities, but you could overlook that. She turns to the left, revealing her face, one transitioned with layers of base, powder, and paint, vainly concealing the telltale map of time. Dispassionately, you look away and move on. Your expectations are high, anticipating a better selection. You approach the cute, but obviously young, cashier who has smiled at you on countless other visits. Was that warm smile, in the past, one of interest or was it merely the programmed grin of a salesperson? You walk slowly, hoping to gain a split-second of eye contact. She looks up to see you, nods her head, and immediately turns back to her customer, spouting a scripted response. You pass her by, sneaking another quick glance, but she never looks back.

You enter the produce department, the first checkpoint in the maze of long aisles and crowded shelves. The elegant, elderly woman in front of you is stalled, massaging a pineapple and then sniffing an avocado. You turn to the right, grab a small white onion, and hear a woman saying silly things. You look up to see a woman pushing a cart with a child carrier. You muse briefly, automatically eliminating her as a prospect, and turn to go down aisle number 1. A subtle glance reveals a young couple, early twenties, carefully examining the canned sweet corn, before placing the off-brand “two for a dollar” cans in their half-full cart. Shades of envy come over you as you witness her place her hand on the small of his back, gently rubbing, back and forth. You reach the end of the aisle, and experience a slight rush of adrenaline that momentarily takes your breath away. There she is again.

A petite, blue-eyed brunette, one you have seen many times before, is standing in front of the butcher’s cooler, carefully discerning her choice of prime beef. She appears to be close to your age—early ’40s, with touches of graying hair. You don’t need any meat today, but that hardly matters. You wonder if she has ever noticed you. Eye contact with each other has been made on several occasions. You push your cart a few feet from her, pick up a pack of hamburger and examine the price. She looks up, recognizes you, smiles and speaks.

“Seems we’re always running into each other… doesn’t it?”

You are shocked, but excited. You interpret the comment as an opening to get a conversation started. You never once think she is only being kind or polite. You haven’t considered that she may be married or otherwise engaged. Your selfish desires have eliminated any rational thoughts, only emotional greed. Boldly, but with uncertainty, you make your move.

“Yes… it does. You cut your hair… it looks nice.”

You see the smile abruptly disappear. She leaves the cooler without choosing anything and hastily pushes her cart in the opposite direction. You feel embarrassed at first and want to apologize, but it is too late for that. You wonder what this woman is thinking. You begin to feel like an idiot, that is, until you see the tall, mid-thirtyish redhead reaching up to grab a box of cake mix from aisle 5. Your eyes cut toward her midriff. The stretch has exposed her pierced navel, signaling an uninhibited spirit. When she looks your way, you shift your eyes to the signs hanging from above the aisle, pretending you don’t see her. You pause for a moment as you discreetly scan her shopping cart, observing the 20-pound sack of potatoes, the numerous cans of Spaghetti O’s, the case of seven-ounce fruit drinks and the “family size” box of laundry detergent, all pointing towards probable unavailability, with excess baggage. With reluctance, you dismiss her and carry on.

You catch a glimpse of a voluptuous, symmetrical torso as it flashes across the opening at the end of the aisle. She is going the opposite way, so you must turn around in order to accidentally cross her path on the previous aisle. The closer you come, the better she looks. She sees you and smiles. Again, the adrenaline rush, as you ask yourself questions, optimistically hoping for positive answers. What is she thinking? Is she interested? Is she “looking” too? Is she single? Is she married? Could she be… “the one”? You suddenly picture the two of you together, married, and cuddled up on the couch, watching a romantic movie. Your fantasy is shattered when two small children, screaming at the top of their lungs, run up to her, begging and whining, while stomping their feet.

“Mommy, Mommy… Can we have some of these… Please… Please… Pretty please? Daddy lets us gettum all the time.”

Geez, what a couple of spoiled brats, you say to yourself.

Peripherally, you see her look up toward you, but you maintain your focus on the children, exhibiting a “they are so cute at that age” grin, but only long enough for her to notice. You make eye contact, demonstrating your nurturing, non-threatening, trustworthy, “see how much I love children” smile. After all, she could be divorced and this is merely her weekend with the kids.

You continue down each aisle, constantly on the alert for the elusive trophy, while avoiding the lower forms. The borderline obese woman, still in her pajamas and house slippers, looks at you with a curious stare as you cross paths by the cookies. She smiles at you, grabs a pack of Chips Ahoy, chunky, and wedges them into the overflowing buggy. You feel uneasy. Her eyes appear to be fixed on your midsection. You cringe at the thought of what she may look like at daybreak before she has a chance to “freshen up.” Anxiety forces you to quickly turn and continue on your way. You hear her sliding her feet lazily across the floor. Aisle 12 is coming up, only four more to go, and still nothing to get excited about. Your initial, elevated criteria have slowly deteriorated, forcing you to contemplate settling for something less than hoped for. You notice a stately woman, obviously up in age, but appealing from a distance. She is standing by the spices, appearing to be watching you. She has, among other things, a handful of single-serving TV dinners stacked in her cart.

You approach the target from the left, stop right next to her, and scan her ring finger, pretending to search for a particular seasoning. Her acrylic fingernails only accentuate the disfigured joints of her fingers, failing in their attempt to divert attention from the shadowed patches on her hands. You see her eyes cut toward you, but her face is turned away. She too appears to be examining the shelf right above her. Her mid-twenties jeans clash with her overbearing middle-aged perfume. Her sleeveless turtleneck cannot fully hide the elastic skin under her chin or hanging from her frail arms. Images of lifeless breasts and a deflated posterior flash in your mind. You arbitrarily pick up a bottle of lemon and herb seasoning to drop in your cart before moving on. Only one more aisle to go and your optimism is waning. Then, out of nowhere, she emerges, moving toward you with an exotic elegance and a casual grace.

“My God,” is all you can think. No words can accurately describe your emotions. You feel your pulse begin to race. She is floating toward you, eyes straight ahead, gliding like a gazelle. Your level of confidence decreases, your self-esteem plummets, for you are witnessing the manifestation of your desire. You begin at her tanned feet, barely covered with thong sandals, up to her faded jeans, passionately clinging to her slender thighs. The supple points of her femininity are barely hidden by the thin fabric of her faded cotton top. You struggle to appear aloof, pretending she is nothing special, as you approach ever closer. You attempt to avoid excessive eye contact, but she is hypnotic, with her olive skin and raven hair. As you pass her, only inches away, the air is suddenly adorned with a hint of freshness, of unspoiled innocence, of sweet passion, like a gentle breeze caressed by a field of jasmine. Her full lips are luscious, her hazel eyes intoxicating, and her sweet voice is mesmerizing. She stops and turns to speak.

“Excuse me… Would you happen to know where I can find the puppy food?”

“Why yes… It’s… It’s… Uh… Back on… On aisle 9.” Your voice crackles and your face becomes flushed, as your insecurity rushes to the surface.

“Thanks.” Her sensuous smile strips you of your apathetic facade.

“You’re very welcome.” You try to remain calm, but cannot. Anticipation has filled your pounding chest.

“I just recently moved here and this is only my second time in this store. My name is Angela.” She tilts her head to the side as she extends her willowy arm.

“I’m Ryan.” You stall for time, holding her petal-soft hand as long as possible.

You cannot believe it; she is the one striking up a conversation. Your face fights the urge to brandish a wide grin, but fails miserably. You are beyond excited and past expectation. Your mind whisks you to another consciousness. You fantasize long, deep passionate kisses, taking naps together on rainy days, calling each other “baby,” and proudly displaying her to all of your friends. You scramble, in your mind, to come up with a response that will solicit more conversation and possibly her phone number as well.

“Well… Angela… ” Saying her name, further enhances your smile. “If you ever need guide, I would be… ” You stop as her cell phone rings.

“Hello… Oh hey sweetie… No, I’m at the grocery store… Okay, I will. How’re the kids… Good… Be home soon… I love you too… Bye. Sorry, you were saying?”

You deviate from your original response and make up a generic comment that disguises the embarrassing disappointment of her inadvertent rejection. With the wind driven from your sails, you nod your head, say it was nice meeting her and walk away, dejected, but still hopeful “the one” is still out there, somewhere.

You make your way to the cash registers; however, the exit is strategically timed in order to ensure the checkout is with the young, semi-attractive girl on register 4. Once again, you wait for the telltale eye contact that never comes. You look back to catch just one more glimpse of the gazelle and then monitor the entrance. Unlikely prospects pass the automatic doors and parade past your condescending gaze.

“And how are you today?” The checkout girl goes through her scripted greeting.

“Fine.”

“Looks like you’ll be cooking hamburgers tonight… Sounds good… I love homemade hamburgers.”

Is she flirting with you… Maybe hinting that she is interested… Should you ask her if she would like to join you? You agonize about what to do, but passively do nothing, thus preventing the likelihood of another rejection. You push the half-empty cart of groceries and disappointments out of the store, slowly returning to the current reality. Then you remember that you need some blank cassette tapes.

As you walk across the parking lot to Wal-Mart, the restless creature is awakened, yet again. Approaching the enclosure that contains the elusive prey, intermittent movement catches your eye: one target to the left, three to the right, one over there and one dead ahead. You discern their merit in the blink of an eye, systematically eliminating the undesirables: “Too young, too old, too fat, too skinny, too ugly… too married.” The automatic doors methodically open as you walk toward the shopping carts, each one cold and waiting in line for a brief touch of a warm hand. Your attention is initially focused on the cashiers, but not so much that they would notice. You scan each face, then down each body, as you pass them. Some glance up to make eye contact, while others ignore your presence. The premise is to acquire necessities; however there is a subconscious agenda, hidden just beneath the surface. A quick, inconspicuous, reconnaissance is conducted, while simultaneously recalling a subliminal list of physical characteristics regarding the perfect mate. The store is filled with prospects, some pleasing to the eye, some not, and still others who fall somewhere in between.
pencil

“I was born in Louisiana in the the summer of 1955. I have been writing for approximately two years and have discovered that my passion for this hobby has consumed me. I write every morning before going to work and contemplate writing all during the day. I have written four books, as of this date, and can’t seem to stop.” E-mail: krider1955[at]yahoo.com.

The Alarm Clock

Beaver’s Pick
Nancy Hoffmann


Boone Tippen reached out his arm and hit the lever on the back of the clock. It was an old-style alarm clock. Two bells on top, a hammer racing between them. He hated the glowing numbers on those clock radios, hated waking up to a DJ yacking away. He wound the clock every night, the crank bending flat against its back when he was done. Darby gave it to him for his birthday several years ago. She had to go to ten stores to find it. She didn’t tell him that to complain. She told him so they could laugh about how difficult it was to find such a simple thing.

Darby was up at the barn already. He could tell from the absence of her weight in the bed, the absence of the cat, who slept purring on her pillow, and the absence of the heavy breath from the two brown mutts who followed her everywhere.

They used to spend the morning together. She always rose more easily than him so she’d lie there awake, waiting for the alarm. And in the darkness, a few touches, a kiss. Then he would doze a while longer until she sent the dogs to get him. But several months had passed since the dogs came running back up the stairs to dig at him as he lay hidden under the blankets.

He dressed without showering—a clean thermal undershirt, jeans and sweatshirt from yesterday. The jeans and sweatshirt smelled lightly of pine shavings and horse manure, odors Boone was comfortable with. In the kitchen, steam rose from the coffee pot. They hadn’t turned the heat on yet, relying as long as they could on the woodburning stove. A ridiculous effort to save money. Darby hadn’t stoked the fire and neither did he. It was early October, there’d be warmth in the morning sun.

Up at the barn, a light shone from the feed room window. Darby worked the whole barn using that one light. She refused to startle the horses with the human need for clarity. They both loved to feed the horses. It was the one chore they never complained about. He’d like to be up there with her, but he sat at the kitchen table with his coffee that he lightened with milk to a benign beige.

Boone figured that Darby had fed the barn cats by now and the horses were complaining about the slow service. Cheyenne liked to toss his head up and down, up and down, Cody smacked his lips, Taffy kicked her stall door, Dakota pawed the ground, Ameera always peed, Murphy nickered. Each had a trick to hurry Darby down the aisle with the buckets of sweet feed—wheat middlings, flaked corn, crimped barley, cane molasses. Boone thought of the weight of the feed and how the grains, coated with molasses that thickened in the cold, sounded like pebbles striking the plastic feed pans. Sometimes, but not so much lately, Darby doled out half a scoop of feed to the empty stall. Boone checked the stall every day and threw the grains in the woods for the birds. He never put it back in the feed room. Just asking for more bad luck.

Boone finished his coffee and waited for the metallic blub, blubbering of the pick up’s diesel engine. Last night, after dinner, he offered to drop the bales from the loft into the truck, but Darby said it was no problem for her in the morning. “Gives me something to do while they eat,” she said.

He met Darby at the gate to the back pasture. The morning blackness was turning gray and Boone could have seen her in the cab of the truck, seen that maybe she had waved, nodded her head, or even smiled. The gesture might have been worth something if she didn’t shoot him right between the eyes. That’s what Boone called the way Darby stared at him, dead center of his forehead. It had taken him a while to figure out. She looked at him, yet, at the same time, didn’t look. When he finally realized the insult, he went behind the shed and split wood until he couldn’t lift the sledgehammer any more. Then he drove to the next farm over and borrowed the old man’s gas-powered log splitter. A humming motor and shattering wood to quiet the thought that maybe she wasn’t just insulting him, maybe she was leaving him.

So Boone kept his head down and climbed into the bed of the truck with the dogs and the hay. Using a pocketknife, he cut the orange twine from around the bales, which broke into small flakes. Summer drought and already they were feeding hay. Darby drove slowly over the brown grass and Boone took his time throwing the flakes out alternating sides of the truck. Cody, the ranking horse, would pin his ears and chase the others from the hay. With the flakes spread over the shallow hill, the gelding would be able to claim only his rightful share.

“That’s it,” Boone yelled as he threw out the last flake. He sat down on the tailgate, his feet dangling, and Darby turned the truck toward the barn.

“Better head over to the house,” Boone called to her. “You’re gonna be late.” And he knew Darby was thinking that she should have gotten up earlier, that she could have had the morning feeding done and the horses turned out before he came to help if she’d just gotten up half an hour earlier. Tomorrow, that’s what she’d do.

When Darby pulled up to the house, the dogs jumped down from the bed of the truck to follow her inside. Boone stayed seated on the tailgate to watch the sun rise above the pines and the first light touch their farm. Thirty-two acres in timothy hay. Seventeen acres of pasture. Five overgrown, wooded acres he’d never clear because some things should be left alone. Blue Moon Farm he and Darby had named it. Such a life doesn’t come along very often.

 

It was only nine acres the first time Darby drove up to his barn.

Her truck was brand new back then. A Chevy diesel, extended cab, long bed. A good farm truck, Boone thought, except it was pulling a rusted red trailer and a lame horse.

“You’re not gonna ride that horse,” Boone said, “not on my farm you’re not. I won’t take him.”

“Relax, cowboy, Scotch is retired,” Darby said and started walking toward the barn. The chestnut gelding followed her, swaying heavily to his left side with every step.

“Stall number eight,” Boone said. After all, he kind of liked being called cowboy.

 

Boone was still sitting on the tailgate when Darby came back outside. She hadn’t bothered to dry her hair. She’d drive with the windows open, the heater on high, and, by time she pulled into the school parking lot, her hair would be its usual jumble of curls.

This term she was teaching mostly plays—Hamlet, Oedipus, No Exit, The Merchant of Venice, Cyrano DeBergerac, Long Day’s Journey into Night, A Raisin in the Sun. The books were stacked on her nightstand. Boone wondered if her students liked her. Some would, of course. But he figured it was all the smart kids. Gifted and talented is what they were called today.

“I have a few stops on my way home,” Darby said. “We’re getting low on feed so I’ll swing by the mill and we could use—”

“I’ll wait for you to bring the horses in,” Boone said.

Darby nodded, climbed into the truck, and drove off.

Boone walked up to the barn and, two at time, led the horses to the back pasture. He turned them loose and each pair trot up the hill to the hay. Just beyond the crest of the hill, near the fence line, rose a mound of dry, cracked dirt. With the drought, it wouldn’t settle. It had been like digging into concrete with the backhoe.

“The black walnut tree came down,” Darby had said. “Scotch must’ve eaten the wilted leaves. It looked like a lightning strike, but maybe it could’ve been the wind too.” It was the only time she accused Boone of not doing what he had promised.

The storm came up during the night. Just a summer thunderstorm. More wind and lightning than rain. In the morning, Boone said he’d walk the pastures and Darby left for school. But the old man called. His fences were down. Cows were in the road. Boone figured he’d be old soon enough and need more help than he wanted to ask for so he drove over there and spent the day chasing cows and mending fence.

From the road, Boone could see the horses in the pasture dozing in the sun. He didn’t see Scotch. That lame horse was a loner anyway.

“C’mon, c’mon,” Boone called the horses to eat that night. Scotch never came to the gate.

When Darby found him, the blisters on his white stockings and muzzle had already swollen and burst. That’s where the poison showed itself. Above his hooves, his legs bulged with fluid. The horse shifted his weight, looking for comfort. Then he lay down. Boone called the vet.

Darby stayed in the pasture all night to keep the coyotes away. At first light, Boone started digging.

 

Darby was late getting home and Boone waited for her to feed the horses. After dinner, she took a flashlight and the dogs to walk the farm. She used to groom Scotch in the evenings. Boone would sweep out the barn and pretend not to watch. She’d start at his head, the soft-bristled brush tracing the rigid contours of his face. Down his neck, across his chest, over his withers, and along his back. At the end of each stroke, Darby flicked her wrist and a puff of dust rose from Scotch’s hide. She never talked to the horse. The rhythm of the brush was enough for Scotch.

When the grooming was done, she massaged his shoulder, forcing warmth into the arthritic joint. Boone liked to lean on his broom and stare at Darby and her horse.

“You’re spying,” Darby always said.

“I’m jealous,” Boone would answer.

“I love you more,” she’d say.

“I know.”

Boone thought that the farm work, performed in the same pattern and with the same motion every day, made them susceptible to a repetitive sort of affection—Darby waiting for the alarm to wake him, Darby sending the dogs to dig at him under the covers, Boone coaxing Darby into saying she loved him more. More than the farm, more than the dogs? More than one unfilled promise that had killed her horse?

Now Darby walked the farm with the dogs. They’d already checked that the gates were latched so Boone went upstairs to their bedroom. He wound the alarm clock, bending the crank flat against its back when he was done. Then he moved the narrow dial for the alarm back half an hour. Tomorrow morning, he’d be waiting for Darby at the gate to the pasture. She’d stop the truck and he’d climb into the back with the dogs and the hay.

pencil

“I live on a horse farm and also work as a research attorney. (Yes, just another attorney bored with the law.) Running a farm seems to give me an endless supply of story ideas and a limited amount of time to explore them. But I figure that’s better than the reverse.” E-mail: 36Legs[at]comcast.net.

Blood in the Apron

Baker’s Pick
Kevin Spaide


The fat cook stuck her fingers into the afterbirth and pulled it cleanly from the backside of the sow. It lay in the dirt, bloody and swarming with flies like a gigantic dead heart.

“No animal,” said the gardener, “has ever looked so miserable as this wretched pig.”

It was the middle of the day and the sun had heated the tin shed into an inferno. Eleven piglets scrambled for a tit while a steady, angry-seeming consciousness beamed from the tiny black eye of their mother. The other eye was only a scar.

“That’s forty-four legs of ham,” said the groundskeeper.

The gardener turned and saw that the woman was drunk. Her drink-ruddy face reflected something of the squalor around them. Her neck was streaked with dirt and sweat.

“Leave the afterbirth where it is,” she instructed. “It’s full of vitamins she’ll need to eat later to get back her strength.”

Though the cook spoke nothing but Bulgarian she stood back from the pig and wiped the blood from her hands into her apron. Then she said something to the pig in her own language and made a few cooing noises of sympathy and regret. What was there to do but absolutely nothing?

Two of the piglets had strayed into a corner and were bumping blindly against one another and the wall. The gardener went over and scooped them up. Each wriggled wildly and kicked its tiny legs like creatures that had always existed in the world though they had entered it less than an hour before. He returned them to the frenzy of their siblings where his eyes lost them among the others.

“You won’t be able to touch them after today, you know,” said the groundskeeper. “Tomorrow she’d chase you right out of here if you did that. I’m just warning you.”

The gardener laughed a little and then backed through the doorway, leaving the spectacle of the new mother behind. The male pig, half the size of the female, stared moodily from the other pen as though deep in thought about the goings-on in the shed. The man tossed a stone at his eyes and set him trotting.

“Glad I’m not you,” he said and immediately felt idiotic for saying it.

It was early, but he found himself heading for the bar. The heat allowed for nothing else, he told himself. It was an extraordinary heat—a smothering, inescapable heat that sapped your vitality, shriveled the thoughts in your head, and rendered the landscape a distant and insubstantial vision. It was like some heavy object bearing down on you from the sky. No one seemed able to endure it without talking about it endlessly.

As he stepped onto the dirt path that led into town he wondered who he would meet that day: going into town meant surrendering yourself to chance. Most of the time nothing much happened on these excursions, but occasionally the most unexpected scenarios developed. And he could never understand why. It was the same town and the same people, but the place was never the same from day to day, which was part of the reason he had been able to remain there for so long.

As he rounded a bend in the path he saw a man walk out of the trees a little ways ahead. From the first moment it was clear that the man wanted to head back into the trees but, realizing he had already been spotted, decided simply to stand where he was. And now it was as if the strange ragged figure, whoever he was, was waiting there for him. A storm arose in his mind. His first impulse was to turn around and walk back to the farm, stubbornly forgoing his entire day so that he would not have to walk up the path under the sudden gaze of this other man. He had always found it embarrassing to encounter someone unknown to him out in the natural world, surrounded by none of the trappings of humanity, because to a certain extent you were obliged to acknowledge the other person as if he were the most important thing in creation. It was impossible to ignore another person alone in the natural world. In town he would pass the same man with as much ceremony as he would show a fence post.

What could someone possibly be doing hanging around out here in this heat? the gardener wondered. It was obvious that the man stood at that particular point on the path only because he had been seen and did not want to be observed moving off elsewhere. Then, as if in reaction to his own wonder, he thought, Whatever it is it’s nothing to do with me! It was as much to him as the fate of that tree the man was leaning on. He moved forward in the shadow of the unknown man’s heavy intrusive presence. As he passed, the gardener looked up and said, “How are you?”

The stranger mumbled something through his beard. His hands twitched in his pockets. He took them out and quickly put them back again.

At the bar he took a table under the awning and watched the children and the dogs run in the street and sipped at his bottle of beer. He hated the nearness of the dogs, all of which seemed to be suffering from mange, but enjoyed the loopy antics of the children. Despite the heat, they ran and fell in the street and howled wildly at one another. No one he knew passed by until he was onto his second bottle, and he merely nodded and said hello, forestalling any sort of social entanglement. It was not a day for talking much.

He found himself thinking about that pitiful sow, lying on her side in the dirt. The image of the massive brown placenta would not leave his mind; it swarmed there with flies. Above the placenta, the unblinking consciousness of that small black eye, imprisoned in heavy folds of gray flesh, stared at a wall. It was not a matter of patience or even resignation as she lay there allowing her offspring to suckle life from her body but a kind of inescapable doom; to do anything else was impossible (it was a pig, after all, he realized) yet he could not avoid the odd spine-shivering idea that, if anything, there had been a fire of resentment, almost of hatred, within that eye. He imagined her devouring the piglets one by one.

“How you sit there in this diabolical heat, I can’t fathom,” spoke a woman from behind him, “but I’ll join you a minute.” She touched him on the shoulder and sat in the other chair. It was the woman who owned the place. She lit a cigarette and leaned back against the wall, as if to capture more of the shade. Along with everyone else who was obliged to work in such heat, she looked like she had just finished running a marathon. Strands of her long dark hair were plastered wetly to her neck.

“Why do we stay in this hellish place?” she asked.

He pretended to deliberate a moment. “Just think of all the places you never want to see,” he said and laughed a little. It was something he had learned to say whenever someone asked him a question like that.

She laughed a little as well. “I suppose you’re right,” she said. “All the places I never want to see—like the Horn of Djibouti. Where the hell is that?”

“Djibouti? God, I hope I never have to find out.” Hearing himself say these words, something seemed to make a slight, shuddering movement in his mind—as if something that was closed were about to open. It was a distinct and very uncomfortable sensation. He took a long sip from his bottle.

After a while the woman stood and stubbed out her cigarette. “Imagine smoking in this heat,” she said. She gathered the empty bottles from the other tables and brought them inside.

The line that separated sun and shade was moving steadily toward him over the stone. One of the children fell in the street, stood up, then decided to cry. Two men leaned over a nearby table and wordlessly clicked dominos together while a third man stared at a newspaper, occasionally underlining something with the stub of a pencil. A woman hovered in the shade of a doorway on the opposite side of the street, smoking a cigar. Her hair was mounded oddly at the top of her head as if she had passed the morning in drudgery, which she probably had. Most people passed the morning in drudgery. The woman flicked the cigar into the street and vanished into the darkness behind her. One of the children found the butt and began puffing at it assiduously.

As the line of sunlight touched his bare toes he finished his beer and put his money on the table. It was not a day for lingering, for tempting fate. Nothing worthwhile, he felt, would happen after this. An indefinable sense that the day was spoiled seemed suddenly to radiate from some inaccessible area of his mind. It was reflected in the objects around him: the dullness of the spoon on the ground, the ashtray full of olive pits and cigarette butts left there by someone else. The fingerprints of other people on the tabletop became almost sickening. What had given him pleasure a moment before, the sunlight, the frolicking of the children, were now a source of oppression. It was as if he had failed in some area, had neglected to do some crucially important thing, and nothing would be right again until he had slept and it was morning.

He could summon no desire to return to the farm but there was nothing else to do at that time of day. By now the children would have discovered the piglets and were probably thronging to see them—no doubt terrorizing the unfortunate pig in the process. Most of the children were savages, but then that, he supposed, was the nature of children.

As he turned onto the dry little road the gardener remembered the man he had encountered there earlier and all at once was possessed by a worry, almost a fear, that he would find the same man again, lurking in the same area. If he should see him a second time, he would be forced to say something—to account in some way for his presence in that particular place in the world. The more he thought about the stranger the more the gardener understood that an air of inevitability had settled over his mind regarding the subject as if he were already somehow deeply involved with the man. He tried to recall his face but could remember only that he had had a beard. The image of the stranger’s uneasy hands moving inside his pockets returned to him like a flash from a half-remembered dream.

While he was thinking these thoughts, he walked slowly at the edge of the road in the thin shade of the trees. At a certain bend, a place that his body knew well, he looked up instinctively and saw a large rock standing in the grass under a tall tree. He stopped walking. In its commanding stillness the rock was like a person waiting there for someone, for him.

The vision of these objects, the rock and the tree—maybe it was the angle at which he had approached them—suddenly and violently prized open his mind, and the memory of something that had happened there a long time before emerged. Horn of Djibouti! It was as if a bird had been let out of a cage and was flapping wildly about his head. Years earlier he had smashed the skull of a dog against the face of that rock and strangled it until it was dead. It was a sick stray and he had killed it only to have killed something. Years had passed since the last time he had thought about that dog. Beads of sweat slid down the skin over his ribs and something deep within his guts loosened and slithered.

He stood still, staring at the rock. It was as if the sky had been torn away from the world and he was falling upward into a void. He was paralyzed, frozen. He thought of that bloodied dog. He had tossed its carcass into the trees. Its sun-bleached bones were still out there. He started walking again, faster than before, and his sandals scuffed against the coarse, dry earth. Little clouds of dust arose and then settled on the path.

When he reached the place where the strange ragged figure had emerged from the line of trees the gardener stopped and looked into the shadow of the forest. There was a palpable lushness to this part of the forest. The leaves on the trees were green and the grass was not scorched into brittle yellow straw as it was everywhere else. Even the air smelled fresher. He drew in a deep breath and stepped off the path and felt more at ease as the sun ceased burning his face. It was as if, with one step, he had crossed from one world into another. He had not been aware of the sun’s ferocity until he was out of its unremitting glare.

A red ribbon was tied around a tree not far from the path. The gardener advanced further into the shade of the woods. Now he could see a faint trail where someone had trodden through the undergrowth. Compelled now, as if the mere existence of the trail were reason enough to move forward, he walked into the trees, half-expecting to come face to face with the bearded stranger at any moment. And what would he say to him? He took his hands out of his pockets as he imagined a sudden confrontation with the man. Then, “What wouldn’t I say to him!” he heard himself say, surprised to hear his own voice in the midst of such hot silence. He carried on along the trail. Desiccated fern-leaves brushed and scraped against his bare legs.

At the edge of a small clearing, he halted. Yellow flowers grew there in tall grass. The sunlight was cool and blue. Not far from where he stood, on a preternaturally brilliant patch of greensward, as green and luxurious as the grass in a story-book for children, ranged the massively naked form of the Bulgarian cook on hands and knees, her tits swaying in rhythmic circles just above the grass as the grotesquely skinny figure of the bearded man he had met earlier pumped away at her backside. The woman let out a violent expostulation as if the man had thrust a knife into her ribs. They were unaware of his presence. He was amazed to see, flapping from a low tree like something left there after a murder, the same blood-stained apron of that morning.

pencil

“I’m a writer from upstate New York living in Ireland.” E-mail: fatalcandle[at]yahoo.com.

Las Sirenas

Ana’s Pick
Margarita Engle


They only danced
when the wind was strong
and the waves were wild

the old folks of Trinidad de Cuba, my mother’s hometown
used to climb the hills to watch the rumba of mermaids
las sirenas, the sirens, so gracefully dancing
to the music of storms

sometimes the flutes of wind screeched
and drums of thunder could not be heard
above the crashing of waves, liquid cymbals

that’s when the mermaids grew legs and emerged
refugees on the beach, hurrying from one small thatched hut
to the next, asking for shelter

in the morning the families of fishermen
who’d shown mercy
discovered that the mermaids were gone
in their place a shimmering treasure, a pearl
gift of thanks for a safe place to rest
during the vigil
waiting for another rhythmic spell
of singing sky, dancing weather…

pencil

Margarita Engle is a botanist and the Cuban-American author of Singing to Cuba (Arte Publico Press), Skywriting (Bantam), and The Poet Slave of Cuba (forthcoming from Henry Holt). Short works appear in journals such as Atlanta Review, California Quarterly, Caribbean Writer, and Hawai’i Pacific Review. Awards include a Cintas Fellowship, a San Diego Book Award, and most recently, a 2005 Willow Review Poetry Award. Margarita lives in central California, where she enjoys hiking and helping her husband with his volunteer work for a wilderness search-and-rescue dog training program. E-mail: Englefam[at]Earthlink.net.