All Writers Are Independent But Some Are More Independent Than Others

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


Writer's Desk
Photo Credit: Allen Skyy

Diet Coke ran an ad during the Oscars that began with a writer working at his desk, taking a stretch break and sipping their product. The commercial showed the evolution of the film from that moment until the audience members gathered in their seats to watch… sipping Diet Coke. The tagline read “not all stars appear on-screen.”

All writers can identify with that guy sitting alone, working hard when it looks like nothing’s happening. Writing is solitary and sometimes unrewarding except for the satisfaction inherent in the work. Writers are weird. We know this about ourselves. We embrace it. You have to be weird to have people running wild in your head, having conversations and doing things that you wouldn’t have expected.

When we write for publication—for that audience sipping the Diet Coke—we know we’ll deal with criticism. In the olden days of the Aughts and earlier, we didn’t have the options for publication that we have in early 2012. For the most part, we kept on querying agents and submitting to journals.

As electronic publishing has grown, writers not only recognize more options for getting their work to an audience, they create their own opportunities. Yesterday’s chapbook is today’s self-published electronic book (available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and the author’s personal URL). It reminds me of the surge of one-hit-wonders in the Eighties, when all you needed for a hit record was a synthesizer and a tape recorder. If you want to create a book, all you need is to write it, format it, and offer it for sale (even if the sale price is “free”). But just like the fact that not every Eighties record was a hit not every self-published book will be Invisible Life.

However, whereas we used to sell a chapbook or zine to a potential reader who would go on her merry way, we now have a continued level of contact with our readers. Those readers aren’t silent about their opinions and the very outlets we use to get our work to an audience has become a two-way line of communication, another form of social media.

Increasingly, writers are responding to the critiques. Sometimes “thank you” suffices. Sometimes writers will go on to rebut a critique, no matter how accurate or constructive. While I believe story, character, dialogue, etc. are always open to critique and response in drafting phases, I don’t think that the equivalent of standing in a store arguing with your customer is smart. When it comes to matters of copyediting, it’s downright foolish.

As self-publishing authors call themselves “independent”—like independent musicians who circumvent record companies—there has been an undeniable increase in the number of novels, novellas, short fiction collections, memoirs, biographies, anthologies and other printed work. In our zeal to get that work into a reader’s hands, we sometimes overlook some of the basics. Those basics make the work readable. Using the excuse that we don’t need to pay attention to structure, grammar, or punctuation shows disrespect for our readers and for our hard work.

Why do we need to pull a “yeah but” on our readers? I think it’s strange to respond to critique of published work at all unless it comes from a friend (to which I usually say “thanks” unless it’s a specific question and then I might answer privately, if at all). If our manners and sense of decorum demand that we thank a reader, our manners should also respect the opinions that reader offers. Thank the reader in your acknowledgements if you must but you’re under no obligation to engage with your reader beyond what you’ve already done: offering your work. There are authors who actively engage their audience in social media; Neil Gaiman springs to mind as an author who uses Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and many other social media sites. But Neil Gaiman doesn’t engage in arguments about his reviews. Gaiman provides endless examples of ways to reach out to readers without making everything about your latest creation and its attributes or flaws.

It’s not stretch to say that independent authors have been burned by traditional publishing because every writer who has submitted for publication has been rejected. Do we have a collective chip on our shoulders over it? I say we do and that’s not a bad thing. Some of us take it as a challenge. Some of us see it as a sign to look to new, non-traditional methods of publication. This might be why we are especially stung by criticism when it comes from the readers and why we feel compelled to stand up for ourselves.

If you must defend your choices—a character’s name, an unusual plot twist, misplaced punctuation—keep in mind that doing so is akin to a book signing or a job interview. Your response to a reader that a constructive criticism is “nasty” or “uncalled-for” affects your reputation and possibly your sales. This is the same whether the response is typed by your fingers or by the friends who jump to your defense when you post to your Facebook wall that you got an unflattering critique. You did not get critiqued. Your book did. There is a difference.

When you respond to your readers in any fashion, you thin the line between your work and yourself, not only in terms of the thick skin writers develop but in terms of how your book is considered. Would the average reader bother to post even a five-star review if the author has come along after every review to make notes? Many readers like the distance between themselves and the author. It’s the characters they feel close to, not their creator. People like J.K. Rowling but they love Harry Potter.

Create a website with a “thank you” page, maybe a FAQ page as well. If these pages are rational and professional, they’ll represent your opinions well enough that you won’t be obligated to chase your reviewers and readers won’t feel individually attacked by rebuttals. If you want to discuss your work, do it there. But if you see the same critique over and over, stop defending your mistake. Correct it. With independent digital publishing, you have no excuse not to—other than pride.

Even when an author rejects one element of traditional publishing—a publisher, for example—it doesn’t mean that all aspects of traditional publishing should be eschewed. Editing services are never a bad idea. As I’ve said many times, editors don’t do what they do as a method to crush our dreams. Editors are passionate people who want the best possible product in a reader’s hands. Readers also want the best story they’ve ever read, from character to correct spelling. Is that any different from the author’s goal?

Mutual respect among writers, readers, editors, agents, and everyone involved in publishing is a goal we should reach for, not rail against.


According to the Association of American Publishers, e-books grew from 0.6% of the total trade market share in 2008 to 6.4% in 2010, the most recent figures available. Total net revenue for 2010: $878 million with 114 million e-books sold. In adult fiction, e-books are now 13.6% of the market.

pencil

Email: baker[at]toasted-cheese.com

Silver and Blood by Trina L. Talma

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Lisa Olson


The fantasy novel Silver and Blood by Trina L. Talma is in essence two very different books.

In part one, “The Dark Men,” we are introduced to the main character Zania and to her life as a barmaid. She is plucked from this world by a master thief and moved into a world of stealth and relative wealth. Her mentor, who is later her lover and father of her child, dies of a fever which also takes the child before it is born and Zania moves in and becomes lovers with a friend, Tarin.

Part one is only thirty-two pages long and it gives far too much information in far too short a time. There is no depth to this first part of the book and I set it aside more than once. I cared nothing for any of the characters because the author gave me nothing to care about. I was dismayed by the speed with which the information was presented and I was afraid that part two would follow suit and the entire book would tell the history of the world in fifty pages or less. Luckily, it did not.

Part two, “Silver and Blood,” is well thought out and solid storytelling. After the first few pages, the author proved her style had changed and the characters started to show their true colors. The situation, while still a typical fantasy setting, had nuances and unexpected turns and a mystery developed that I wanted to reach the end of.

Zania’s lover Tarin disappears. In her attempt to find him, Zania is thrust together with a band of thieves she knows only by reputation. Discovering that she is being hunted for her knowledge of Tarin, her new friends decide to send her to a safer place—to the forest outside the city. All Zania knows of the forest is that you don’t remain there after dark, you stay behind the safe walls.

She is taken to a forest camp loyal to the band of thieves in the city. They learn tracking and fighting skills here and take the knowledge with them when they return behind the walls, giving an important edge to their group. Zania meets new friends including a taciturn elf—a creature she was sure was only myth. From them, she begins to learn the skills of the woods.

It’s the clash of cultures that bring Zania and the novel to life. Her transition from city to forest plays out well and the story is interesting as she learns the skills and interactions with people that it takes to survive in her new surroundings and find Tarin. There are interesting characters surrounding Zania and a foe that is mysterious and dangerous.

Part two is the superior part of the novel and worth the reading of the first to experience it. It’s a strong story and well-written with new and different ideas on thieves, elves and vampires. After part one, I was surprised to find I was enjoying the book and couldn’t stop reading until it was complete.

*

Trina L. Talma is a former Toasted Cheese editor. Silver and Blood (Lulu.com, 240 pp.) is the first of a series, which also includes River’s End, The Throne of the Sun, Return to Dawn and Dreams of Darkness. Silver and Blood and its companions are available in paperback and ebook formats at Amazon and Lulu.

pencil

Email Lisa Olson: boots[at]toasted-cheese.com

A Bone to Pick

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
Kristi Petersen Schoonover


Fires can't be made with dead embers, nor can enthusiasm be stirred by spiritless men. ~James Arthur Baldwin
Photo Credit: Chinmoy Mukerji

When I said I wouldn’t get back together with Warren if he were the last man on Earth, I meant it.

For years—before the world ended—I was his go-to girl. He’d split with someone, track me down (consistently on the heels of my broken heart’s mending), swear he’d changed, beg forgiveness and promise picket fences. I’d been deeply in love with him since we met in a Robert Frost poetry seminar, so I’d always fall for it. As soon as I dreamt of a wedding, he’d run off with another woman, citing he wasn’t sure I was the one—he needed space.

Shortly after the last incident, I was thumbing through my Chic Chick and stumbled across the article “10 Signs He’s Using You”—and Warren exhibited every one. Simultaneously incensed and embarrassed, I texted him to never again find me, punctuating it with the “last man” cliché.

Then came what CNN (while it was still on the air) unoriginally dubbed Skullpocalypse—like the invented zombie disaster that’d spawned movies, anthologies, Walks for Hunger and The Walking Dead—only minus the virus-rotting-flesh-eating-of-brains tropes.

Deep in Haiti, a scorned voodoo practitioner cursed her cheating husband and his lover. Flesh melted off their bones, organs withered and turned to dust, and all that was left were skeletons. But it had an unforeseen effect: The skeletons were alive, and they possessed an obscene strength and harbored an evil so vile their vacant, tar-black sockets coaled with hatred. They set to biting every living thing they could find. And whoever or whatever got bitten followed suit.

They overtook and escaped the island, and there was no stopping them. You couldn’t bash them apart—they simply reassembled, stronger and more aggressive (I saw the bones of a squirrel re-connect and break his attacker’s legs before biting her). You couldn’t shoot them—bullets whizzed through. There was only one recourse: The skeletons fled from dead things. If you died before you were bitten, you’d never be condemned; if you had a dead body near you, they’d leave you alone.

I don’t know how people brought themselves to do it, but many shot themselves. Or others.

That was Halloween, when the New England air was rife with the smell of carved pumpkins, wet leaves, Sweet Tarts, and snappled in anticipation. By Thanksgiving, the air was redolent with the skeletons’ rancid milk and overcooked mushroom smell, and the gray skies weren’t just somber, but oppressive. By Christmas, I was, as far as I knew, the only living person in a debris-strewn Mystic, Connecticut. I spent the day below decks on the famous Charles W. Morgan drinking bottles of exquisitely-aged Amontillado and reading the only book I’d taken from my apartment—The Complete Poems of Robert Frost (a gift from Warren). The inscription inside read, Mel… something there is that doesn’t love a wall. Maybe one day we’ll mend.

I was sure he was out there, and he was one of them. Which meant any human skeleton I came across could have been him. Which meant that my fatal bite could possibly come from his mouth.

I’d be damned if he was going to get me. I had to cut town, go someplace remote—and since I knew that I’d meet death eventually, I considered where I’d want to be when it happened.

Armed with the dead body of a Mystic Seaport Security Guard and the gun he’d used to kill himself, I secured an abandoned pick-up truck and hit the road. By the January snows I’d arrived at Robert Frost’s farm in Derry, New Hampshire. Although it was now a museum and gift shop, his life there had inspired the poem, “The Mending Wall.”

In light of the circumstances, it was the most apropos location I could think of.

At first, there weren’t any skeletons around—the sparse population had likely succumbed, leaving none to bite, so they’d boned elsewhere. By Valentine’s Day, they knew I was here—my oil lamps’ glow through the sheer curtains and the smoke channeling from the chimney had probably given me away. By George Washington’s Birthday, the security guard’s body had decomposed enough so the skeletons weren’t afraid of it anymore. That was when I discovered, by defending myself with a flaming piece of firewood, that not only did they recede from fire, it was the only way to kill them: they couldn’t rise from their ashes.

With the help of equipment from the maintenance shed, I managed to penetrate the frozen ground and dig a trench around the house and barn. I only built a low flame—I needed to conserve wood—but I found that was enough. I keep fires going twenty-four-seven.

Day and night, in the woods beyond the smoking gash, they rattle around the hibernating oaks and maples, snapping branches beneath their metatarsals. When they walk, it sounds like banging drumsticks and shaking maracas—the thickets bristle with a snap-shhh, snap-shhh, and you can tell how close they are by its volume. Unless, of course, there’s an ice storm, because the clicking of the crystal-coated birches is louder.

During the day it’s easy to spot them, but at night, it’s dark as cloak, and they’re so white they blend with the field’s snow cover—if I squint, I can distinguish their gaping eye sockets, hovering like phantom holes.

Tonight, mist shrouds the field—the mud and vanilla smell tells me it’s warming up, for which I’m glad; but it’ll be March soon, for which I’m not, because the ensuing spring rains will most likely extinguish my line of defense.

I sip fresh coffee—it’s so hot it warms me instantly. I adjust my flannel blanket; then I hear something. I lean forward, cock my ear toward the woods—there’s a different sound, as though something is running. It could be a fast-moving non-human skeleton, like a rabbit or deer—but they’d sound similar to the others.

This could be a living creature.

Like a bear.

I reach for a gun and rise from the rocking chair, simultaneously shedding my blanket. I move to the newel post and focus at the edge of the forest.

A shadow bursts from the evergreens and books toward my fire.

It’s a person.

I race to the edge of the flames.

The intruder stops just short of the trench, pushes back his hood.

The heat prickles my cheeks. “Warren?”

“Mel.” He doesn’t look surprised. “Boy I’m glad to see you.” Hyperventilating, he slides a nervous glance behind him; then he looks back at me, nods at the flames below. “What’s with the fire?”

The back of my throat burns with anger. “They won’t go near it. It’s the only thing that destroys them.” Then I remember the gun. I train it on him. “I wasn’t kidding, what I said about the last man on Earth.”

“Now that I really am?”

I visualize our last break-up: he calls, can’t see me anymore because he’s just met Rose, doesn’t want to blow it with her, if she’s not the one he knows that I am, he needs space, thanks for putting him back together again, he’ll always be grateful, he has a bond with me he’ll never have with any other woman no matter what.

I taste rage—metallic, sour.

His dead body would ensure the skeletons don’t come near the trench for awhile. The spring rains issue would be solved.

I cock the gun.

“Mel. Put the gun down. Come on.” He peers over his shoulder. “I’ve got no one else and neither do you.”

In the woods, I hear the snap-shhh, snap-shhh.

“What happened to Rose?”

His eyes flash desperate. “Please. Let me across.”

I don’t move.

He turns completely to look at the skeletons—as if assessing whether or not he can make another run for it—then pivots to face me again. “She got bitten. Okay?”

“I’d like to say I’m sorry, but I’m not.”

Snap-shhh.

“You ever seen it, Mel? Gnashing teeth, running flesh, vomiting, withering organs, shrieking. Watch someone you love die like that is that what you want?”

Snap-shhh.

Love. So he did love her. I thrill to his anxious expression—he’s always been so brash, arrogant, cocksure I’d always be there when he needed me. Not today.

He clenches his hands into fists. “Mel, we’re it, here, for God’s sake, don’t wall me out!”

Snap-shhh.

The smell of rancid milk and overcooked mushrooms is suffocating. They’ll reach him soon.

As many times as I’d delightfully imagined him tortured, it’d been fantasy. In two minutes, it’s not going to be fantasy anymore. And I’m angry at him, but he’s right—I can’t watch him suffer what he’s just described.

I ram the gun into my pocket. “Follow me on your side of the trench.” I rush to the house and seize the ancient metal toboggan I’ve been using as a bridge. I slam it down across the ditch with a creak-ploof as it hits the opposite snow bank. “Hurry up.”

He reaches me and I retract the bridge just as one of the boners leaps, misses, and plummets into the flames. It erupts into an ember-spewing fireball; Warren crushes me against him, and I’m immersed in his familiar smell, something like almonds and bourbon. It stirs things in me.

When the flash dies down, we both look. An indigo plume of smoke rises from where the thing had met its end. The rest of them retreat to the woods.

“Imagine how many lives would’ve been saved if we’d figured that out months ago,” Warren says. “Rose would still be here.”

I pull away from him, start up the porch steps.

He’s quiet, then says, “Thanks, Mel.”

I poise and grab the railing. “Let’s get this straight. You can stay here tonight, I’ll feed you, we’ll heat water for a bath and wash your clothes, but in the morning, you take some supplies and go.”

Before I head inside, I retrieve my coffee.

It’s ice cold.

*

The fire in the hearth casts the framed photographs of Frost in flickering shadows; heating water for Warren’s bath, cooking his food has softened me, and I try to quell cozy fantasies as I clip his flannel shirt to a clothesline I’ve strung across the living room.

“Wow. You never do let that thing go out.” Warren, in my bathrobe, appears in the doorway.

My pulse quickens. I move to poker the coals. “The key is to stay focused, constantly watch. Of course, there’s not too much around to distract me.”

He steps closer; I smell the gift shop’s lavender soap. “It’s lonely here, isn’t it?”

I shut out the tactile memory of having been crushed against him outside. “It’s not bad.”

He rubs his hands before the flames. “What smells good?”

“Corned beef hash.” I slip into a rooster-patterned oven mitt and palm the iron skillet I’d had warming on the bricks, bring it to the table.

“I haven’t had that since I was a kid.” He settles into one of the rustic pine chairs.

“The stores are full of canned goods.” I shovel the food on his plate. “It’s scary to get ’em—I gotta go into town armed with a torch in my hand or a dead squirrel tied around my neck—but it’s doable.”

He eyes the red taper in a burnished gold candlestick. “Can we light this?”

I take my seat. “I’m out of matches and lighters.”

“Isn’t that risky? Being matchless?”

“As long as the fires don’t go out, I’m fine for now. I’ll get more on my next trip to town.”

He considers me for a moment. Then he says, “You’re not going to town alone—I’ll get ’em.”

I’m about to respond you’re gone tomorrow, but his sad St. Bernard-esque eyes disarm me; in this moment I see what I’ve always wanted: just us, a meal, a fire, a home. Desire, excitement, cliffhanging fear course through me. “How’d you find me here?”

He sets down his fork, shifts, and reaches into the robe’s pocket, extracting a piece of wood the size and shape of a large cookie. He sets it on the table as though it were Spode.

I immediately recognize it.

It’s from the maple that stood on this property—outside Frost’s bedroom, the subject of his poem “Tree at my Window.” Years ago, the tree had become feeble—a threat to the house—so it’d been cut down. The farm had sold these wooden mementos for fifteen dollars each. There are still, in fact, some in the gift shop.

I’d mail-ordered the one he has, given it to him the first Christmas we’d been together. I’d admitted my one dream was to marry him, here, on this farm, where that maple had stood.

His gaze intent on mine, he quotes the poem: “My sash is lowered when the night comes on, but let there never be a curtain drawn between you and me.”

There’s a knot in my throat.

“Do you still want to marry me, Mel?”

I blink. “But… you loved her. Rose.”

“I did.” He leans toward me. “It doesn’t matter now.”

The air is still, the only sound is the fire’s hisspop-crackle.

“10 Signs He’s Using You” seems farcical, stuff penned by bitter women, and right now I’m not one of them—joy burbles through my limbs, belly, chest, face. “Yes.”

He cups my hand. “Then we’ll do it. Tomorrow. We’ll just marry ourselves. Out by where the maple used to stand.”

I flush.

He’s on me; we land on my makeshift bed in the corner.

Suddenly, something jabs my hip. The gun. It’s still in my pocket.

I laugh. “Wait.”

He stops. “What?”

I pull the gun out, set it on the small table that serves as my nightstand.

“Just take everything off,” he says.

And I delight in his almond-bourbon-lavender taste and think something there is that doesn’t love a wall. Maybe one day we’ll mend and now that day is here.

*

I open my eyes. The drear of late-winter day leaks through the sheers; there’s a chill in my bones and a bouldering roar.

The fire in the hearth has gone out. And it’s raining. In torrents.

I jar the dead-to-the-world Warren. “Oh my God get up! Get up!”

He mumbles, stirs as I struggle into my jeans and flannel. I rush to the window. The fires in the ditch are dead; there isn’t even any smoke. Out in the gloom, the skeletons merrily funnel into and out of the trench like a river of white flesh-eating ants. They’re advancing on the house.

“What’s going on?”

“The fires went out, they’re coming!”

“Shit.” He whips his clothes off the line. “Just re-light the fire in here, we can wave burning logs at them!”

A claw seizes my heart. “We have no matches!”

He just stops and looks at me, his eyes wide. “We can run.”

But I peer out the back window and know better: the skeletons have encircled the house. “We can’t.”

He comes up behind me, brushes the sheers aside. For a few moments, we simply watch them approach.

Then he whispers, “At least I’m not alone.”

The words are hot pokers through my heart, cement in my lungs. My face burns; I can’t breathe; I can barely speak. Then I collect myself and face him. “Is that why you really came to find me? You didn’t want to be alone?”

He looks surprised, and I know immediately he hadn’t realized he’d spoken aloud.

He sets his hand on my cheek. “I knew if anyone was gonna still be breathing, it’d be you. You don’t give up.”

I sadly recognize this is true about more things than it should be.

“I had no choice,” he says.

The skeletons hurtle over the porch railing; the house shakes. A black object plummets from the small table that serves as a nightstand.

The gun.

All those people who shot themselves or others, I’d marveled at how hard a choice that must’ve been. But now, facing the only man I’ve ever loved, knowing that he truly had deeply loved Rose and the only reason he’s here with me is because the world ended, what kind of heartbreaking existence is knowing all of that, every day, loving him, knowing that?—now the choice isn’t difficult at all.

I fling myself on the mattress, reach for the weapon, aim it. “Step back, Warren.”

What?

“You heard me. Step back.”

I swear I see sweat break out on his forehead. “Wha—what are you doing?”

“I’m not you, Warren. I’m not afraid of being alone. Or anything else.”

A skeleton, its bony fingers reaching for us, crashes through the wall. I close my eyes and pull the trigger.

When I said I wouldn’t get back together with Warren if he were the last man on Earth, I meant it.

pencil

Kristi Petersen Schoonover’s short fiction has appeared in Carpe Articulum, The Adirondack Review, Barbaric Yawp, New Witch Magazine, Toasted Cheese, and others, including several anthologies such as Dark Opus Press’ In Poe’s Shadow. She holds an MFA from Goddard College, has received three Norman Mailer Writers Colony Residencies, and is editor for Read Short Fiction. Her most recent work, Skeletons in the Swimmin’ Hole, is a collection of ghost stories set in Disney Parks; her horror novel, Bad Apple, is forthcoming from Vagabondage Books. She’s also a member of the New England Horror Writers Association. Her website is kristipetersenschoonover.com. Email: petersenschoonover[at]gmail.com

Skin and Bones

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
Jake Gogats


ghost forest
Photo Credit: Chris Wenger

I woke to the sound of chanting. It wasn’t English; that was clear. It almost sounded like—

No.

I saw the sun rising outside of my cabin, so I shrugged off my fatigue and began to prepare for the day. My wife moaned as I opened the door and let the sun in. I chuckled and shut it behind me.

It was a sight, the village in the morning. The sun would rise from the East, our home. The frosted dew covered the cabins and the grass, giving the whole town a white glow. I said a habitual prayer to God, asking that the sun would carry the wealth of Britain along with warmth. Then I proceeded to knock on the doors of the men I would hunt with, their groaning audible through the thin wooden walls.

As I sat in the town center, I stared into the distant forest. We’d cleared far past the edge of town, past where it was already cleared, to make sure we would see them if they ever came. Not that we expected it.

That day, the forest seemed darker, as if the trees cast denser shadows. I could barely see past the first row of trees. I felt as if the forest didn’t want me to see into it, like it wanted its privacy today.

Suddenly, I realized that my men were around me, rubbing the tired out of their eyes and muttering words of hunger and cold.

“Everyone ate all the food last night; we’ll have to catch breakfast or ask the farmers.” This brought more groans; the farmers had a certain distaste for us hunters; we got all the glory and they got the complaints, and the modest rationing of food during the winter did not sit well with townspeople.

So we set off into the forest, but it felt different than the hundred times we’d done it before. This was a new a forest, a new spirit. The others didn’t seem fazed by the added darkness, so I ignored it and opened my eyes a bit wider.

The day started all right; we caught some beasts we knew were safe. It was a sufficient lunch for our section of the town, and there was some left over for dinner.

The second trip out was different.

We crept into the forest just as in the morning, this time with fuller stomachs. I knew that meant the men would be less motivated to catch dinner, but they’d soon feel hunger seeping back into their bones, an indelible part of our life.

I spotted a deer. The rule was to not stop walking unless you spotted something, both a way of keeping the hunt moving and alerting when something had been found.

They all froze, swerving their heads to the deer. I raised my gun, asserting this as my own. It was a huge buck; it could keep us eating for quite a while if shot and stored properly. My gun was already loaded, and I was the best shot.

It was clean, and everyone gave cheers as the deer fell with a mangled face.

The hunter was the one to claim the kill, so everyone stood back as I approached the deer. It felt as if the deer corpse was tugging me forward while my instincts told me to stay with my men. It wouldn’t help the respect I’d earned if I cowered from a dead buck.

The walk dragged on in my head, and I noticed the darkness of the forest again. This time it was real, though; night was approaching. We had to bring back the meat in time for dinner, and so I sped up in fear of a sudden winter nightfall. The trees blurred along with my senses, making me see bright colors of fall despite it being midwinter.

Loud chanting blasted through the forest without warning, causing me to lose my footing. I fell into a bush, and the chanting ceased. Only a low giggle was audible, but I couldn’t focus enough to find its source.

Through the leaves of the bushes, I saw a figure.

It was tall and dark, and the bright colors I had seen before weren’t there. I squinted and finally made out the figure of a woman.

Slowly, I stood to face an Indian with only long, dark hair to cover her body. There was a tree obstructing my view of the others, but they obeyed the rules and waited for my call.

I spotted my gun on the ground next to the woman, and at that moment she bent down to pick it up.

“Don’t touch that!” I whispered, as if my voice wasn’t allowed to alert the others. Her fingers stopped and she stood back up.

She took a step toward me, now so close I couldn’t see anything but her face, simple and hardened. Leaning into me, my world drifted into a trance of attraction and intrigue. I held the kiss, letting the feeling spread through my body; I put my hands on her waist and brought her closer. Through my heavy clothing, I felt her body. It wasn’t warm; rather, it pierced my furs with cold.

Only then as I became truly entranced by the forest and this woman, her mouth started to taste differently. I tried to ignore it, but then it became the taste of rotten meat and her tongue felt weak and dry. I opened my eyes and drew my head from the kiss, seeing the true figure I had osculated.

She was unemotional as her body rotted away from her. Her hair shriveled and turned a dirty greenish brown; her skin grew fungus; maggots seeped out from unseen wounds; her fingernails grew to freakish length. Worst of all was her face. Her slight smile grew as her lips fell away along with her receding eyes. Small bugs crawled through openings and chewed away at her skin until her body could not support itself.

All that was left of her was a skull and bones when I left. The woman I loved for just a moment.

I grabbed my gun, covered with insects, and turned away from the scene. The bugs flew off my gun as I ran to the buck, almost expecting it to be rotted away by the time I got there.

*

Supper was joyful, everyone shrugging off the cold with fire and good meat, although my wife was irritated because of my distracted gaze. I wasn’t guilty; I was curious. What happened in the forest? Why did even now the forest seem darker than I’d ever seen?

“James, how was the forest today?” I asked.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, was there something funny?” I tried not to look too concerned, staring into my glass.

“Hell, I don’t know. What’s got you?”

“Nothing… nothing.” I took the hard apple cider and walked listlessly to my cabin. At the threshold, I heard my wife’s footsteps behind me.

“I feel it too,” she murmured.

I stopped with my hand in the door, taking a sip from my drink. Before I turned, she spoke again. “What happened in the forest?”

At this, I poured out the rest of my drink and walked to my wife. “What are you talking about?”

“What did you do?” she demanded.

“What do you mean? I shot a buck.”

“Oh my Lord, do I believe you?” There was a strange combination of anger and curiosity in her eyes, fused in a way I’d never seen in her before. “Something’s been disturbed.”

“Will you get to the point?”

Letting out a long sigh, she managed to bring her eyes to my level. She was afraid of something. Was it me? Was I the one who frightened my wife so?

“You were tested today, Howard. I don’t know how; I don’t know where, but I do know that you failed.”

I didn’t say anything.

She took another breath. “And now we all have to pay the price.”

“Jesus, Marie, nothing’s going to happen. God has given us this land; don’t you remember the ready crops and brimming forest? Have you forgotten God’s preference?”

“Do you honestly think those crops were from God?”

“The Plague cleared the land for us.”

“And who grew the crops?”

I knew the answer, but before I could speak she continued. “The Indians, Howard. I know they were dead and gone when we came, but this is not God’s work.”

“Then whose? Who cleared the forest and gave us this all?”

“I can’t say… but I know God has no part in this New World.”

“Then who? What has done this to me?”

Marie walked past me to our cabin and went inside. I ran to her through the pitch dark. She sat on the side of the bed opposite to me, looking at the wall. She was shaking. “What’s going to happen?”

I know now that she is right; there is reason for me to fear. “I don’t know.”

*

Knocking, banging, rumbling.

These sounds surrounded the cabin, and for a moment I expected the hunters to come through the door, laughing at my fright. But no one came, and the sounds did not stop. The cabin, the New World, was consumed with this terrifying noise.

It was still dark, but I turned on the gas lamp, judging it appropriate.

The light shone on where my wife should have been in my bed, but instead I saw the rotting Indian woman I had loved. Abruptly, the light went out, and I saw nothing.

For a minute I sat, listening the banging getting louder and louder, almost expecting my house to cave in and kill us…

And then finally it stopped, leaving me paralyzed.

I was frozen for what felt like hours and hours, but finally I made my way back into bed. I turned to my left, to where my wife should have been.

“Marie?”

“Yes?”

“I love you,” I lied.

She chuckled and went to sleep.

*

The next morning, I woke up with the soggy feeling of blood in my clothes.

Panic. The blanket, my clothes, my skin, all soaked in blood; was it my own? I suddenly felt trapped in my bed, as if the sodden blanket had fused with my skin and the blood would never dry. I thrashed, the body of my wife convulsing along with mine until I finally detached myself. I stood and panted, still covered in hardening blood that felt like an unseen force grabbing me from behind.

My wife’s arms lay strewn awkwardly across her chest, covering her stomach where the blood was concentrated. I walked to my wife and bent down to her face, peaceful and clean.

I leaned down farther to kiss her forehead for the last time. When I was finally ready to leave the cabin, I turned away from her.

Her cold, wet hand jumped and grabbed my hand, turning me around. I twisted quickly, her hand pulling me with a force she did not have in life. I faced her to see her eyes wide open, glaring. Sputtering, she forced out her last words.

You will taste this blood.”

Panic rushed back to me as her head lifted to my arm, her mouth wide and soaked red. Smacking her arm with my gun, I got away and ran out of the cabin, knowing she would not follow.

I ventured into the town. The sun was rising from the East, but this time it was mocking. Britannia’s fortune had not extended to me, and now she was laughing at my misfortune. Our failure.

I knocked on James’s cabin first; his was the closest. No answer. Before intruding on him, I knocked on Frederick’s, then Tom’s. No answer no answer no answer.

Back at James’s cabin, I decided to knock again. Nothing. I did not take a deep breath; I did not prepare myself; I did not take one last glance around me. Nothing was wrong, and I did not need these last things.

I went inside.

When I shook James, nothing was wrong. When I told his wife to wake up, nothing was wrong. When I took off their thin blanket, nothing was wrong.

Until I opened my eyes.

The gunshots in their abdomens were wrong, very wrong. My friends were dead, and everything was wrong. Everyone else was dead, too—I checked—even the people I hardly ever spoke with. None of them came back to life, though, and my wife did not reappear.

All because of my confusing failure.

I vomited in the town center, not knowing what was left for me. Picking at frozen deer meat, I sobbed to myself for not knowing what I did wrong. Did I finally understand? I thought so.

In the midst of crying, they approached me. I froze and did not turn to them.

“It’s time you come with us.”

I quickly glanced at my nearest surroundings, trying to find a weapon.

“Why?” I asked them.

“Because you’re the last one.”

And at that moment, I decided I did not want to die. I did not want to end up with a gunshot in my abdomen or worse, because I had a feeling I’d been saved for a reason. My senses came alive, and the smell of old furs rushed into my nose along with the sight of seven Indians surrounding the stump I sat on.

They all wore a different beast, but the one speaking wore the fur of a buck, the antlers on his head larger than those we found on the buck the day before. This was a fearful man, but I could see his body rotting. Much slower than the woman, but a few maggots were chewing away through his stomach, causing me to vomit again.

I saw that between two of the seven chiefs there was a large gap, and without hesitation I ran into the forest. I didn’t look back, and I ran until I my legs gave out. My eyes had given up long before that, so I didn’t know where I was. I lay gasping, suddenly scared that the rest of my life would be like this. When I finally caught my breath, I tried to stand, but instead I felt my world fall around me. I hit the bottom of the pit with a crack. I felt something stab me, and my cries tore through the quiet atmosphere.

Then I saw what I was lying in: a grave. Seven skeletons lay in the pit, and I knew they were the seven chiefs. The rotting furs adorned each skull, and I tried to look away from the maggots that had thrived on their meat, now trying to find scraps on the bones.

My eyes peered upward, looking for hope that I would not die with insects crawling through me. Instead of hope, I found the seven, somehow below and above me.

Were they spirits of God or the Devil? Was there no connection?

The leader, the buck, glared at me more closely than the others, and he spoke words that I felt he had been waiting to say.

“We now have your pale skin. It’s time we gave you something of ours.”

Another, one with a raccoon on his head, threw down a single spear into my stomach, forcing me farther down through the skeletons. I didn’t flinch; I was too absorbed with the seven.

“What did I do wrong?”

The seven laughed at me like I was a mistaken child.

“You fell in love with one of us. How could you rejoice in the death of something you love?”

“I… I don’t understand.”

The man became very angry in my dazed confusion.

“You all owe us a debt. We will not extinguish a people like you have, but this is how you all will pay. It just so happens you’re the one who was tested. There needs to be as much terror in you as there was in all the native children that’ve died as a result of your people.”

Then he chuckled for a moment, reverting from the tense scene.

“Kissing a dead woman? I wonder where that falls on the spectrum of Christian sin.”

The pain of the spear shot through me suddenly, and through my screams I managed to pull it out. I did not answer the seven, but I willed my way up the pit. Dying in this pit would be my hell, and no punishment would be needed in the afterlife. I hadn’t done anything wrong, though; I didn’t deserve this.

Somehow, after hours of clawing and climbing, I breathed the air of the grass and Indians. My blood dyed the white grass red, but I did not look down as I stood, victorious. I was a blotch of crimson in a sea of dead, pale grass.

To my right the naked woman stood, as rotten as possible before collapse. I took a lurching step toward her, and in the distance I think I could see the people of the colony rushing toward me, their gunshot wounds seemingly ignored. They weren’t real, for at this point I was trying to distinguish reality, hallucination, spirit, evil… My wife stood behind the woman. Her lips were a dark blue, darker than they ever got in the cold.

“You failed me, Howard,” she whispered ignorantly as she threw the only woman I ever loved into the pit with the dead seven.

“Marie, I—”

“Howard, I don’t have to explain anything to you. Let’s just go to bed.”

I obeyed her, and I lay down next to her in the grass. The seven stood around us again, but they made no noise. I looked at my wound, and I could have sworn I saw a single maggot beginning to tear away at my flesh.

Tearing away at my soul.

Before I fell asleep, I whispered to the dead.

“Sorry for everything.”

pencil

Jake Gogats is currently a high school student in New York. He enjoys theater, reading, and learning history to inspire pieces such as this. He’d like to thank the Toasted Cheese staff for providing writers with a great place to read, write, discuss, and get published! Email: fishy4242[at]gmail.com

The Red Scarf

Dead of Winter ~ First Place
Anitha Murthy


wave
Photo Credit: Jamelah E.

The woman appeared in front of his car just as the traffic light turned green. Shailesh swore as he honked impatiently. As usual, the endless line of vehicles ahead showed no inclination of moving. He would be late for his 10 a.m. meeting—there was no doubt about it now.

Through the open window, the woman thrust what appeared to be a knitted scarf at him.

“Only fifty rupees, Sir,” she said in a rustic dialect of Hindi.

Shailesh recoiled in disgust. He couldn’t stand these traffic-signal hawkers; they were like oozing, pus-filled scabs in the city.

The woman seemed ancient, her weather-beaten face lined like parched earth. Her pink blouse was faded with tattered embroidery, her patchwork skirt was muddy, and she held the edge of a threadbare red veil in her mouth. Dull coppery hair peeped out from below the veil. She was the perfect picture of dereliction. But it was her eyes that snagged Shailesh; they were a murky green-brown, like mud stirred in a mossy puddle, and he had the feeling of being trapped in quicksand.

She waved the scarf at him. Her fingers dangled over the window inside the car like gnarled, grasping roots, their nails encrusted with thick black dirt. A tarnished ring with a grinning skull-and-bones hung loosely on her index finger. Her tinny silver bangle, adorned with the same grinning skull-and-bones, banged against the window and Shailesh felt a wave of nausea gather in his stomach.

He hated these traffic light nuisances. Sometimes, men sauntered by with piles of sunglasses, or cheap plastic airplanes, or animal-shaped balloons. Little boys hawked magazines, struggling to keep on display the chosen few from the big pile they were carrying. Smartly-dressed eunuchs slapped their hands together and uttered choice abuses if they didn’t get a handout. Shailesh had no sympathy for these folks. Why couldn’t they go out and earn a decent living? If they expected him to part with his hard-earned money, they could think again!

Today, it appeared to be the turn of these gypsies. He could spot two other similarly dressed women trying to sell the knitted garments out in front. One of them even had a baby strapped to her back, for extra sympathy, he supposed.

“Sir!”

The woman shook the garment in front of him. Shailesh gritted his teeth and shook his head to indicate his disinterest. He studiously avoided her gaze, but the woman was persistent.

“Sir. Only fifty.”

This time she shook the scarf so vigorously that it tickled him in the nose, triggering off a powerful sneeze. Irritation quickly gave way to an overwhelming fury. Just who the hell did she think she was, thrusting stuff through his window and demanding that he buy it?

“Told you, I don’t want it!” Shailesh barked at her. Hadn’t he already indicated that he didn’t want it? Didn’t she get the message, dammit?

A bus that was several cars ahead began to move. About time, Shailesh thought, itching to jam down on the accelerator. Traffic in Bangalore—bah! The worst ever.

Kabhi tand nahin hoyega, Saheb.” Her voice was flat, ominous. You will never feel the cold.

As the car ahead began to move, Shailesh glanced at the woman. Her muddy gaze made him shudder involuntarily and he made up his mind. In one swift move, he pushed the window button of his car and the window rolled up. The woman snatched her hand away just in time as he accelerated and zoomed ahead, a wicked grin on his face. As he drove on, he realized something was fluttering by his window. It was that damned scarf! She had been quick enough to save her hand, but she had been too late to rescue the scarf. It was fluttering by his window, jammed at the edge. He could see her stunned face in his rearview mirror. Serves you right, you bitch, he thought, a savage thrill coursing through his body. He watched as she raised her right hand and pointed a terrible index finger at him. The skull ring glinted in the sun and Shailesh swallowed. He thought he could hear her cursing him.

At the next traffic light, Shailesh carefully pulled the scarf inside the car. It wasn’t a great scarf; the knitting was all thick and nubbly. It seemed to have some pattern on it, and it smelled of camels and tents and travel. Ugh! Why couldn’t it have been a soft, nice scarf, something he could wear around his neck to combat the nip of the cold December air? He would probably just give it away to the security guard at work. He shoved it into his backpack that lay on the passenger seat.

By the time Shailesh returned home that night, he had forgotten all about the woman at the traffic light and the musty scarf.

*

The next day, it was a little past midnight when Shailesh returned to his apartment after the office Christmas party. He wasn’t sure how many drinks he had had, but it had made him lose all his inhibitions. He rued his crazy dance moves; he must have put off pretty Piyali completely with his display. Not that he had much of a chance with her anyway, but still. He was still perspiring heavily from his rambunctious exertions and the AC in the car was just not enough. He rolled down the window to let the cool winter air in. He liked the Bangalore weather—neither too cold nor too hot, unlike Delhi where he came from. Pity he was off to Delhi for the holidays. He winced as he thought of it.

Shailesh didn’t look forward to the annual ritual of the family gathering in Delhi. Members of their extended family flew down from USA, Canada, and the UK. There were endless parties and get-togethers, mostly with the same crowd and after the initial catching up, it became rather monotonous. Being an only son, Shailesh was duty-bound to be present and to be shown off to his relatives as a prize catch in the matrimonial market, much like a stud bull at a cattle fair. There was no way Shailesh could get out of it; after all, who did he have here in Bangalore anyway?

By the time Shailesh reached his apartment, the damp patches of perspiration on his shirt had grown as large as dinner plates. He mopped his brow as he got out of his car. Bangalore seemed to be getting hotter every year, he thought, and grinned. He was already beginning to sound like a typical Bangalorean! In a city that barely managed three seasons, each season slipped into the next like finely woven yarn, so that it could be quite confusing at times. It was the normal thing to complain about the inconsistent weather, and look accusingly at people like him—the outsiders who had come and settled down in Bangalore, upsetting the weather gods in the process.

Shailesh swung his backpack over his shoulder and made his way to the elevator. God, he was sweating like a pig! He may as well forget about Piyali completely, he thought wryly. Fat chance she would go for a guy who was as wet as a dripping towel.

He groaned when he reached his apartment. It was a complete mess. He would have to clear up everything before he left, else the place would be teeming with cockroaches when he returned. He would have to catch his beauty sleep at home in Delhi. There was no way he could clean up and sleep in the few hours that were available.

By the time Shailesh cleared up his apartment, it was almost three in the morning. The dishes were all done, the fridge was cleared out, three plump garbage bags stood like sentinels next to the front door, and his suitcase was stuffed with two weeks’ worth of laundry, which his mom would do for him when he got to Delhi. His bags were all packed, along with his laptop in his backpack that he needed to take in case there was an emergency at work. Now, he had an hour to kill before his ride to the airport showed up.

He sank on the couch and switched on the TV. It was on a news channel, and the news immediately caught Shailesh’s attention.

“Delhi is in the grip of an unprecedented cold wave. The temperature has been hovering around the zero degrees centigrade mark. All schools, colleges, and other educational institutions have been declared closed for the next two days by the Government. The sudden dip in temperatures is forcing people to stay indoors. According to the Met department officials, this is due to chilly, dry winds from the Northwest, which are sweeping through the city. They have forecast that this cold spell will remain for the next couple of days. However, the absence of fog has ensured that all flights operated normally.”

Visuals of the empty Delhi streets and the homeless huddled around bonfires came on. There was a ticker running at the bottom of the screen, advising travelers to contact their airlines and confirm their flights.

Shailesh cursed as he took out his ticket and punched the phone number of the airlines on his mobile. He was almost immediately connected to a representative.

“My flight for Delhi is at 6 a.m. today. Is there any delay or cancellation?”

“No, sir,” the lady politely answered. “The flight is on time. There is no delay for any of our flights. Is there anything else I can do for you?”

“No thanks,” Shailesh answered, wiping his brow with the back of his hand. Damn! It was getting really hot in here. He was actually looking forward to experiencing that familiar Delhi chill that froze one’s bones.

*

As Shailesh pushed the luggage trolley ahead of him, he scanned the thin crowd that stood outside the terminal, waiting for the arriving passengers. His parents always came to pick him up, and soon enough, he spotted them. They looked like overstuffed laundry bags with several layers of clothing bulging oddly, every inch of their bodies covered with thick woolens. In utter contrast, Shailesh had unbuttoned his shirt because of the heat, his fair face red like a boiled lobster, and his hair slicked down because of perspiration.

“I was worried about the flight,” said Shailesh, after the usual greetings. “Luckily, it was all ok. I saw the news, they were saying it is quite bad here?”

“Yes,” his father nodded. “It’s been pretty bad.”

“How could you come dressed like this?” His mother burst out. “Are you crazy? Knowing the weather in Delhi, you should have at least worn a jacket.” She sighed and shook her head. “Never mind, I’ll give you one of my shawls.”

Shailesh was in fact feeling like he was being cooked on a slow flame. The flight had been very uncomfortable, and he was sure that the temperature control had not been working properly in the plane. He had even asked the stewardess, but she had given him a strange look, and assured him that everything was normal. Everyone else had seemed quite comfortable. Some had even requested for blankets and were fast asleep. But Shailesh had felt so hot that he had to overcome the urge to reach over and rip open the damn windows!

“It’s ok, I’m fine,” he protested, and pushed the shawl back to his mother. She grumbled under her breath as they both waited for his father to bring the car. Shailesh longed to peel off his shirt and let the chill dig its teeth into his skin. What was happening to him? Had he caught some bug?

Their car pulled up, and Shailesh heaved his suitcases into the boot. Once in the car, he had to ask his mother.

“Ma, can you check if I have fever or something? I’m feeling so hot.”

His mother pulled off her glove with some difficulty. She placed her hand on his forehead, and withdrew it sharply. She then placed her hand on his neck, where it was coated with his perspiration. She withdrew it again immediately.

“You’re feeling hot?” She asked him, her eyes narrowing in disbelief.

“Yes, I’m feeling very hot.”

She turned to his father, squeezing her hand back into the glove.

“We might have to take him to the doctor,” she said, in a worried tone. “He says he is feeling hot, but he is cold, ice-cold!”

“What?” Shailesh couldn’t believe it. He put his hand against his forehead, and dropped it in shock. It was true. He was as cold as a block of ice. Then why was he perspiring, why was he feeling like he was on a slow boil inside? Why did he have this longing to strip off all his clothes right now and plunge into an ice-cold bath?

“Let’s get home. Then I’ll call the doctor.” Shailesh’s father replied. His priority was to get home first. He didn’t want them stranded anywhere on this cold, wintry night.

Shailesh’s mind was in a whirl, trying to pinpoint a reason for this maddening situation. Was it because he drank too much? He couldn’t recollect correctly, but he was sure he hadn’t gone overboard. He had felt just a nice pleasant buzz. He thought he had worked it all off with the dancing. Had he danced too much? Was it the food? He couldn’t think of a single reason why he had picked up this strange bug. What was happening? He felt prickles of fear light up his spine.

“Dad, can I roll the windows down?” He asked.

“Are you crazy?” His dad shot a glance at him. “Do you want us to freeze to death?”

“But I’m not able to breathe. I’m feeling so hot!”

“Don’t worry, we’ve almost reached home.” His mother caressed his arm, her eyes dark with worry. She should never have let her only son stay so far away from her.

Shailesh burst out of the car when it drew up in front of his house. If he had stayed inside a moment longer, he was sure he would suffocate and die. He felt like he was sizzling within, his insides being turned into a simmering stew.

“Shailesh! Are you alright?” His mother jumped out and ran behind him. Her teeth had already begun chattering and her lips looked blue.

“I’m fine. You… you get into the house, you’re cold,” stuttered Shailesh, mopping the sweat from his face with his drenched hanky. He didn’t know what he himself was going to do. A raging inferno had engulfed him, and he was beginning to feel scorched.

Inside, the house was as warm as toast, and comfortable enough for his parents to shed most of their layers. But for Shailesh, it was like he was in a sauna. Nonsense, he told himself. This was all his imagination. He clenched his teeth and refused to let himself succumb to this strange ailment. Instead, he began opening his suitcases.

“Mom, I got this Mysore silk sari for you. And dad, I got this really nice wooden prayer stand. You can put your Bhagvad Gita on it and read it during your prayer time.”

“You bought this also?”

Shailesh turned and was dumbstruck. His mom was holding up a red scarf, which she had spotted peeking out of his backpack. A bolt of pure fear shot through him. The scarf! That goddamn scarf!

In a flash, he remembered everything vividly. The woman at the traffic light. Her dress, her hair, her fingers, the ring… and the way he had ambushed her. He remembered her cursing, and the memory of it was evil. The same skull-and-bones pattern that had been on her ring was on the scarf, but with one difference. The skull had muddy eyes, just like the woman. And right now, it appeared to be staring intently at Shailesh, boring into him like a giant drill. He felt his throat close with panic.

Her words echoed in his head with ominous clarity. “Kabhi tand nahin hoyega, Saheb.” You will never feel cold.

A tsunami of cold dread swamped Shailesh. Was that what was happening to him? Oh Lord! What had he done?

He grabbed the scarf to his mother’s astonishment, threw open the door and raced out to the middle of the road.

“Take this, bitch. Take this away and leave me alone!” He screamed as he flung the scarf away.

His parents rushed to the door after him, horrified.

He kicked and stamped the scarf, boiling hot tears cascading down his cheeks. The scarf lay limply in the middle of the road and then, all of a sudden, it rose towards Shailesh. He tried desperately to beat it off, but like a python stalking its prey, it slithered around his neck. Around and around it wound, even as Shailesh screamed and tore at it. He fell to the ground, thrashing and flailing. Tighter and tighter, till he gave one last shudder and then lay still, a shadow on the ground in the frosty silver moonlight.

As if shaken from a trance, his shocked mother uttered a cry and ran towards the inert body.

“My son!” She cried as she knelt next to him and touched him. Instinctively, she jerked her hand away and looked back at her husband in frightened disbelief.

A distinct smell of burning flesh filled the bleak night air.

pencil

Anitha Murthy is a lazy dreamer, pretty content with life. A software consultant by profession, she likes to write whenever inspiration strikes her. She has been published both online and in print, has even won a few contests, and likes to try her hand at different genres. She lives in Bangalore and her home on the web is Thought Raker. Email: anitha.murthy.007[at]gmail.com

The Dance

Boots’s Pick
Robert Watts Lamon


Broken Pilings
Photo Credit: Randy Bayne

He had recently closed his bookstore. The Internet and Barnes and Noble had beaten him fair and square. Now, as he lounged in his North Carolina home, he was thinking, not of his failed bookstore, but of his days in the military. The memories seemed unreal—not only the peculiar dust and bare stone, the heat and cold, the unique vermin of far-flung posts, but also the cheap drink and easy sex of exotic towns. And now that unreality was creeping toward him like a shadow, encompassing the land, increasing the despair, distorting the laughter. Maybe he was getting to be an old fogy, a retread puritan, who had reached an age that allowed few alternatives.

In the midst of these reflections, he left his chair, climbed the stairs, grabbed a suitcase out of the closet, and began tossing things into it. And at last, with his packed suitcase in the trunk and a small clothing bag dangling over the back seat, he steered his Toyota east on Route 64, heading for its juncture with Route 17. It was early February—still the off-season—but the weather had warmed into the sixties and promised to be even warmer on the coast.

Traffic was light on Route 17 as he drove past the dark furrows, the marshes, the waterways, the boats lining the shores. He reached Elizabeth City and headed for the Outer Banks. Crossing the water in the setting sun, he decided to seek shelter and found a pleasant, barely occupied motel. The garrulous manager asked to see his girlfriend—the off-season brought secret romances. He assured the manager he was alone and getting too old for romance.

But his room was clean and looked out on the ocean. He awoke the next morning well-rested, found breakfast at a diner, and drove to Hatteras, where he strolled the beach and climbed to the top of the lighthouse. As he looked out over the ocean, he felt a delight he hadn’t felt in some time. The warm spell had stayed on. The sky was clear blue except for the vague mist over the water—the hint of colliding currents. He could see orange-colored trawlers near the horizon, hear the gulls as they lighted on the waves, feel and smell the salty breeze. He spent hours wandering the broad beach like the plovers, going where the breeze took him—or so it seemed.

As the shadows lengthened, he drove back to the motel. But once in his room he grew restless. He stood at the full-length window, gazing at the darkened shore. He slid the window open and inhaled the night air. Funny how invigorating the salt air is, he thought—and how the sea attracts us. Perhaps it’s traceable to some evolutionary ancestor who lived in the water. He stepped out onto the small brick terrace and slid the window shut. There was a light on, several rooms away, and a country tune was playing softly. He stepped off the terrace onto the sand and strolled toward the breakers, stopping as the sand grew moist and firm. The sky was full of stars and further lit by a quarter moon and mirrored by a thousand ripples on the water. He thought about swimming out until the ocean absorbed him—like that movie protagonist. The producers hadn’t shown the fish and crabs feasting on the remains. He wondered how long this warm spell would last. Sooner or later, the rain would come, and then the cold. Maybe a twister would pull the water from the ocean. Years ago, he had seen a waterspout.

He walked back to the dry sand that sifted through his sandals. He found a hillock and sat down and leaned back against it. He closed his eyes briefly, but opened them wide when he heard music accompanying the surf. It was big-band music—from the swing era. He had an uncle who had loved the big bands and had often played their records on the Philco phonograph. He remembered how his uncle dressed up for a dance and how his girlfriend looked when he brought her home to show off.

But where was the music coming from? He assumed young people still gathered on the beach at night, but their music had become an inscrutable pounding. He was about to doze again, when he noticed a distinct glow in the sky above the next dune. He forced himself awake, got to his feet, and brushed the sand from his shirt and trousers. He walked toward the light, watching his footing as he approached the crest of the dune, expecting to find a picnic for old folks, or a group of superannuated surf fishermen.

When he finally looked up, he saw an enormous wooden building—a pavilion—sitting over the ocean, propped on a procession of pilings, like a great enclosed pier. Most of its glow came from a tall sign on the roof. Swingtime Pavilion, it read, in letters outlined by light bulbs. Groups and couples were leaving their cars in a nearby parking area and walking toward the pavilion. Most of the people were young, some still in their teens. But their dress was unusually formal. There were no jeans, bare midriffs, or running shoes. The men wore coats and ties; the women wore dresses and heels. And their cars—a ’37 Plymouth with its raised back, a ’37 Ford with a rumble seat, a ’34 Pontiac with a running board, a ’41 Oldsmobile with its Hydramatic buzz. He noticed a beautiful wallflower—she had a club foot—and a young man in uniform, but with an arm missing and the empty sleeve pinned up. When did the Army start wearing the old pinks-and-greens again?

Curiosity carried him down the slope toward the wooden hall. Approaching the path to its entrance, he noticed that most of the men had slicked their hair, and some had combed it in a huge wave. He felt out of place in his loose trousers, shirttails, and sandals, yet he sidled his way as far as the broad doorway. He could see colored lights and couples gliding around the dance floor. Standing on the spotlighted stage, the saxophonist fronting the big band looked like Jimmy Dorsey, though he knew both Dorseys had died years ago. Who was that band leader with the smooth tones and competent hands?

He felt a bump from behind and turned to find a lovely woman in a blue dress. She had a fine figure and sparkling eyes.

“You can’t go in there like that,” she said, in a pleasant Southern way, looking him up and down.

“I wasn’t planning to,” he replied.

She smiled and looked interested. “Coat and tie’s the rule.”

“Fine old custom. Glad to see it come back.”

“What ever do you mean?” she asked, obviously puzzled.

“I mean—uh, considering what they wear these days.”

Still puzzled, she smiled anyway. “Well now, you just go home and change, and we’ll dance together. I’ll save you the first one.”

“You’ve got a deal. Say—is this some sort of convention?”

She blinked several times. “No—of course not. It’s a dance—we have them every week.”

“Oh—”

“Now you go on—I’ll wait for you. And you come back now,” she said with a hint of urgency. Then she turned like a ballerina, entered the pavilion, and was lost among the crowd.

He quick-timed over the dune and back to his room. He had brought decent clothes—blue blazer, shirt and tie, clean khakis. Once he was properly dressed and shod, with his tie carefully straightened, he was quickly out the door and striding back to the Swingtime Pavilion. But where was the light? There was no glow above the dune. And when he reached the top of the sandy rise, he found nothing—no great pavilion with its tall sign, no vintage cars, no people—and worst of all, no beautiful woman to greet his return.

He walked down to the place where the covered pier had stood. He gazed at the surf as it hissed among some broken pilings. Was he merely responding to a dream? But who was that woman?—someone from his own past? He didn’t know the answer. He plodded back to his room, feeling silly, betrayed, wondering why the cosmos, the Eschaton, his psyche, had conspired to deceive him. As he reached his small terrace, he noticed a man sitting outside a nearby room.

“All dressed up and no place to go,” the man said.

“You’re right,” he replied simply, though stung by the gibe.

The next morning, packed and ready for the road, he walked down to the ocean for a last look. He saw the broken pilings in the morning sun, along with a faint suggestion of a path and parking area. When he stopped at the motel office to turn in his key, he asked the manager, an old-timer, about the Swingtime Pavilion.

“Oh, yeah—yeah,” the manager said. “That was here years ago. It was the place to go in the Thirties and Forties. But times changed, tastes changed, and folks stopped coming. It got damaged in a storm in—oh, 1960, as I recall. The owner tore it down—no use fixing it.”

Later, on a ferry ride to Cedar Island, he left his car and leaned against the gunwale. He watched the screws churning the water and the gulls swooping so close he could count their toes. And he was still thinking about that dream, or visitation, or whatever it was—and about that woman, so fine in her blue dress.

Driving west on Route 70, he saw the sky cloud over and the first drops of rain hit the windshield. Yes—more cold weather before spring, he thought. Maybe he should re-open his bookstore, maybe specialize in military history, nostalgia—deal in used books as well as new. After all, he still had reality to face. As he drove on, the wind blew harder, flinging the pouring rain against the glass.

pencil

Robert Watts Lamon is college educated, an ROTC graduate, and a former chemist. In addition to papers in organic chemistry, he’s published several short stories in small magazines, including Xavier Review and The MacGuffin. He’s also contributed four book reviews to Liberty. Email: rwlamon[at]frontier.com

Cars

Broker’s Pick
Griggori Tyler Taylor


Back to Back
Photo Credit: Johann/::: mindgraph :::

Dylan and I,
we are cars going in different directions.

We are both the only child of the parent we live with.
He is eight years younger than me and into things
I’ll never give the time to understand.
But when our Grandma died
we drew close like two cars on a collapsing bridge,
drawn together from opposite ends.

There are days I still see us
wandering hospital halls waiting.
Our diets grew to be Starbucks and Subway,
and I grew to know each lustrous employee by name.
We’d entertain ourselves with cards
and checkers on preset tables.
Only then had I ever let someone win.

I love him like a brother.
That’s why once a year
I stop my mental waterfall to watch the playoffs.
That’s why he listens to REM,
allowing me to tell people
“Man, my eleven-year-old cousin has better taste than you!”

It gives us something more to talk about.

So when he stares with eyes already gone and asks,
“Would you rather have a crazy dad, or a dead dad?”
I’m left shuffling through records to find something
to fill the void.
I draw blanks so I say
“I don’t know”
and I don’t.

“It doesn’t matter. I’m still left without a father.”

And no college band or football player
would ever leave me with an answer.

Like clockwork he reminds me
he’s not even twelve yet.
That he shouldn’t have to worry about this.
That a suicide note shouldn’t be sleeping in his voice mail.
That Xanax and hallucination shouldn’t be part of his vocabulary,
which is vast because he was plucked to grow up too young.

I worry about him sometimes.
That he’s already looking at things from perspectives I missed.
That his smile might be lost and he can’t reel it back in.
The news scares him more than it does me,
and I find him asking about things like being bombed.
Like wars.
Things I didn’t think of as a child
but I guess this is how things are now.

And I wish I could tell you
it’s all a story.
That I’d spin it all into a nice metaphor
but I got nothing.
I wish I could tell you it’s making him stronger
but Dylan and I,
we are cars going different directions.
I am speeding to witness the edge of the earth,
Dylan,
He has passed it.
Now,
he just wants to rest.

pencil

Griggori Tyler Taylor is a performance poet and visual artist from Paducah, Kentucky. He is a member of Paducah Writer’s Group and is a frequent performer at Etcetera Coffeehouse. His work has appeared in Notations and Word Riot (under pen-name Ivan Snow). His first book of poems, Picking the Lovely, is due to be published April ’12. He enjoys writing in third person. He is wearing a hat and drinking a frozen peppermint latte, not constantly, just currently. Email: ivan.snow[at]hotmail.com

The Grace of Grass

Creative Nonfiction
Shaina Rafal


Tenacious
Photo Credit: Carol Blyberg

The cool summer wind whips wisps of hair along my neck as I scan the rocky shore before me. I hear faint giggling up the hill—and at first I think it must be my inner child beckoning me to join it as it barrel rolls down the gravel path towards me. But on further listen, as the wind cuts my ears a break, I can make out the voice of my little cousin. She is seven years old, and we are in a fight. She likes spending hours raking the lawn with her fingers for four leaf clovers. I, on the other hand, am unable to focus on a single task for more than a few minutes before I want to peel back the skin from my bones and crawl out of it, begging for a change in activity before I am bored to death and buried amongst the elusive clovers themselves.

It is the summer after my college graduation, and I am visiting my aunt, uncle, and little cousin on a quiet isle along the Maine coastline. I’ve brought a friend with me—Timmy. We are not dating.

“Just come here for a second!” my little cousin calls in a joyful tone that indicates she’s forgiven me. Her stringy black hair swings side to side as she catches up and, out of breath, tugs at my elbow.

I turn around and march up the hill, my thighs burning from lack of exercise. I’m pulled in the direction of the little beach shanty across from the home we are renting. If this shanty could talk, it would beg for new siding to protect itself from the Atlantic’s harsh blows. Its shutters dangle like those of a storybook haunted house. But just as a bruised brown banana peel yields the sweetest fruit, behind the shanty’s rough exterior resides a lovely family.

A mother and her two darling daughters make the shanty their sanctuary every summer. They live in New York City, like me, and the mother is a self-declared hippie who doesn’t comb her children’s hair and only buys toiletries made from lavender and liquorices and the like. Packed along with these organic necessities are their two cats—chubby city cats that never get to go outside except for when they come up here.

As my cousin yanks me around to the side yard, the cats scatter, and the bells dangling from their collars tinkle like a wind chime. I see Timmy. He is sitting on a beach chair wearing my cousin’s neon visor and a smile on his face. Hugging a hardback dictionary, a beautifully disheveled girl skips through the shanty’s creaking door. She is the oldest of the children gathered and the only one who can read. My eye then catches my aunt and uncle’s old black lab, aptly named Sweetie. A worn out quilt rests across her back, and a warm, welcomed blanket is draped across my shoulders by my little cousin.

“We are gathered here,” the young girl declares in a dramatically deepened voice, pretending to read from the dictionary, “to celebrate Shaina and Timmy.”

Timmy looks at me and waves as I am slowly led in his direction.

The miniature minister motions for Timmy to stand, then continues the ceremony. “Do you, Timmy, take Shaina to be your awfully wedded wife?”

Timmy and I stifle laughs at her error in words then straighten our faces.

“Sure do.” Timmy pets Sweetie, who is now standing between us, then glances at me with his kind brown eyes. I take my vows when prompted while the minister’s little sister pushes her curly coif away from her forehead and hands Timmy a ring fashioned from grass. Timmy slips it on my finger and is granted permission to kiss the bride. Our lips meet for the first time, and we process out, ducking under low pine branches as the children tear fistfuls of grass from the ground to toss at us like rice.

 

Following this trip, Timmy would take me in because I couldn’t find a real job after graduation. He would do the grocery shopping and cook for me while I’d serve coffee at the café down the street. And while I would sleep in his comfortable king-sized bed beneath the windows, he’d take the twin in the stuffy meant-to-be office.

Timmy’s and my first kiss had been set up by a crew of curious kids, and our last one was shared one year later, not long before Timmy—having lost his battle with a cancer caught too late—was laid to rest beneath a bed of clovers. And as the wind whipped over his gravesite that autumn afternoon, I plucked a piece of grass and, twisting it around my finger, said goodbye to my awfully wedded husband.

pencil

Shaina Rafal holds a BA in Communication and Media Studies with a concentration in Journalism and Writing from Fordham University. After graduation, she volunteered in Kingston, Jamaica where she taught kids how to read using hangman. That’s when it clicked: she should be an English teacher! She worked with English language-learners in NYC before returning to her childhood school in Wilmington, DE to teach English and Theology. And the best part? Her favorite teacher who encouraged her to be a writer is just two classrooms away. Email: shaina.rafal[at]gmail.com

Vincent Under the Bed

Fiction
Elizabeth Buechner Morris


A peek inside my bedroom 8O
Photo Credit: Mike Alexander

“Expect to be surprised.”

These were the only words on the postcard I received at my home office, not even a date or a signature. I knew, and she knew I would know, that the card came from Louise Brandt. Expecting a clue, I scrutinized the scene on the front, but it was nothing unusual: a lighthouse on a granite peninsula caught in the first light of dawn, with the overprinted words “Welcome to Maine.”

Miss Brandt and I had corresponded for nearly two years. It was not a balanced communication, as she had written often, and I had replied only twice. My most recent letter to her had indicated that I would squeeze in a visit on my next sales trip. It seemed that Miss Brandt would not take no for an answer; she wheedled away at me the way my fellow alumni do during the annual telethon pledge drives. Just as I begrudgingly give to my alma mater each year, I finally gave in to her and agreed to look at her so-called treasure.

Two years ago I wrote an article for Yankee magazine; apparently that is where she got my name. That article had been an attempt to describe painting techniques, particularly those employed by Northern European artists in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In it, I had used as examples two painters: Aert de Gelder, a pupil of Rembrandt’s, to represent the eighteenth century, and Vincent van Gogh to characterize the nineteenth. The article didn’t mention my amateur status or my current part-time profession that brought me to Maine twice a year, selling ads in the “Directory of Funeral Directors and Morticians” for the American Society for Funeral Service.

I have been an observer of art all my life, a collector of remembered images. I particularly admire certain periods and schools of painting; I am most happy enjoying an afternoon wandering the European collection of the Museum of Fine Arts. I’ve never had the wherewithal to be an actual collector, but ever since my astute third grade teacher had the wisdom to take our class to the Metropolitan Museum and set us free, I have reveled in the riches of art. I remember that day. The girls went up the grand stairs to the costume galleries; we boys turned right into the grand armor halls, losing ourselves among the items of gallantry and violence the way today’s boys are transfixed by the dragon slayers, Ninja turtles, and muscle-bound warriors in their computer games. I separated myself from the gang, wandering through collections of snuff boxes from Dresden, massive statues of animals with human heads, pistols, marble coffins, and household items made from pottery, wood, straw, clay and iron. I remember finding my friends again in the sun-filled sculpture gallery, where we giggled with nine-year old fascination and embarrassment at the marble nudes, aghast at anatomical details that many of us had never seen before and had not yet even wondered about.

Here was a world of things made by hand. My father was a brewer in the family business, and the talk in our family was of things made by machine, as was the news on the radio of our country’s industries gearing up for the war effort. Coca Cola, the 20th Century Limited, Hollywood—these are things that framed my young life; suddenly I was introduced to a world where things were made by hand, and that workmanship could be judged on its artistic qualities. At age twelve I was allowed by my parents to go to the Met alone, and since by then it was obvious I was not going to be good at sports, had no interest in hiking or climbing trees, and was often taunted as Four Eyes by my peers, the Met became my weekend hideaway. The guards knew me by name. One always offered me a Chiclet, another called me Fritz, after one of the Katzenjammer kids in the funny papers.

Louise Brandt, however, knew none of this background. On the strength of my sole published article—carefully researched—she believed that I was the technical expert who would confirm the authenticity of a certain canvas in her possession. Authentic what, authentic who, I had no idea.

She used a fountain pen for all her letters to me with a nib so round and soft that I had a mental image of a bedridden old lady with a mauve shawl pinned at her bosom with an antique brooch. She wrote on heavy cream paper, and began each letter with a description of what she saw out her window that day.

“Today a lone great blue heron silently glides to its hunting perch, patiently waits, then, after a quick crouch and a noiseless wing beat, it’s airborne again.” Such spontaneity and careful observation piqued my interest and it had to be rewarded, I thought to myself, and I wrote back saying I would make my visit.

I am on my way to full retirement now, only working a few days each week, three months in the spring and three more in the fall. An uncle had the business before me; it seemed okay to me to take it over when I retired from the Boston Public Library. Such a job would both keep me busy and give me enough free time to visit the museums which were my real passion. The funeral business is a family business, and my customers and prospects don’t change, they just age, and I along with them. I used to stay in local motels around my sales route; now, as often as not, I’m invited to stay with the business proprietors. They know I’ll arrive late in the day with my old leather attaché case in one hand and my canvas duffle bag in the other. They all call me Fred, and they tell me the latest macabre jokes and bizarre inside stories that their industry mostly keeps to itself. They try to shock me, it seems. I live a quiet life, out of choice. Even so, I’m glad for their company and the chance to laugh. The sound of my own laughter surprises me. It’s like my father’s—a brief wry exhalation. Like me, he lived alone, and lonely, much of his life after his divorce from my mother, as I did after my wife’s horrific car crash soon after our one-year anniversary.

When I drove up to Miss Brandt’s house, I had my first surprise. It was not the stately Victorian I expected. It was a modern ranch style house, made of cedar or some similar wood, left to its natural color. It stood in a garden of rocks and boulders and sculptures constructed out of farm tools, outdoor toys, and architectural follies. Grasses of different colors and heights seemed the only living things. I rolled down the car window and was assaulted by the chirr of a million grasshoppers. Miss Brandt heard my car pull up, and opened the door, letting fly a phalanx of large dogs—one was a Weimaraner, the rest unidentifiable—all of whom gave me a quick sniff before bounding off behind the house where I could glimpse a soggy meadow of salt hay.

She was large as well, an inch or two taller than I, and appearing even taller with her hair piled atop her head and fastened in place with immense silver clips studded with turquoise. Her broad shoulders and very long legs might have made her seem manly, but they were offset by her voluptuous lips and large, wide-spaced blue eyes. It was hard to break eye contact with her.

She had tea waiting and with little ceremony poured me a large mug and suggested we tour the house. It was small, cramped by her possessions. There were shelves in every room, revealing tea sets, pearl-handled revolvers, embroidery samples, tin soldiers, and leather-bound books, not all in English. Paintings and drawings, lit by lights on tracks on the ceiling, were above and alongside the shelves. In a spare bedroom, trunks were against every wall as well as at the foot of the immense four-poster. “Silver, china, shards, thimbles,” she said, with a dismissive wave of her hand.

Our whirlwind tour ended at the kitchen table. “Sit,” she demanded, and I did.

“Call me Louise. I’ll call you Fred. Did I tell you that my maiden name was den Houter? It’s important that you know that. I expected someone younger. Oh, well, no matter.”

I didn’t mention that I had expected someone older, calmer, and saner. Her collections seemed to have no theme to them; although, I had so little time seeing them that it was premature to make a judgment. The only thing mauve about Miss Brandt was the tint in one lock of her hair, a slightly paler color than the stripes in her socks.

“I’m looking for someone who specializes in late nineteenth-century Dutch painters—van Gogh, to be specific. Not someone well known, though. Are you a dealer?”

I explained that not only was I not a dealer, but that I was a rank amateur; furthermore, I made my living selling ads in a funeral director’s directory.

“Perfect! Wait here while I get my surprise.”

She disappeared into her bedroom. I had a moment to look around the kitchen. There was a stove, refrigerator, and large soapstone sink, so clearly it was a kitchen; but there were no counters of the usual sort, just tables against the walls and open shelves above. There were herbs growing in small pots on one table, a large mound of bread dough rising on another. Dried flowers and exotic ferns hung from the ceiling. A small easel was in a corner, paint splattered on its three legs, but no painting was displayed. There were two enormous ceramic bowls on the floor, one filled with water—for the dogs, I realized. A window was open and the slight breeze stirred hundreds of small feathers that were tied with monofilament to a curtain rod above. On the windowsill were shells and bits of dried seaweed. There were colorful fish in an aquarium, lazily swimming through their habitat of green sea glass and two ceramic doorknobs. This was nothing like my kitchen—all white, clutterless, easy to clean.

I’d dressed in a suit and tie. Now I realized how inappropriate that was and removed my tie, stuffing it in my pocket. As I hung my suit coat over the back of a kitchen chair, I heard the sound of something being dragged across the floor, then she reappeared, manhandling a wooden crate, perhaps three feet square, tied with twine.

“I haven’t opened it since we began writing to each other. Let’s have a look.”

Deftly she sliced through the bindings with a kitchen knife, took the lid off the crate and peeled back several layers of worn blankets that cradled a painting framed in an intricate gold-leafed frame. The painting had been cleaned amateurishly. I could see streaks across the surface, even without a magnifying glass. It was a beach scene. A woman, sitting in a chair knitting, was the sole figure. Somehow the talent and insight of the artist made it clear to me that she was a skilled knitter. I knew the painting was Dutch from the contrasts of light and dark across the canvas and from the woman’s cap and high-collared dress.

“What do you know about this painting?” I asked.

“I know a bit, but I’m not going to tell you. I’m not trying to be difficult or coy; I’d just like your approach to be completely fresh. I’ve given you one big hint already—my maiden name. I don’t want to influence you in any way. I do want to hire you to tell me everything you can about this work. You can take your time; you can see the painting whenever you want, but you can’t let anyone else see it unless I say it’s okay.”

I asked her a few questions about how she came to have the painting, but she wouldn’t answer. I asked her if she had called in experts, and she answered that I was the only one. I had brought a camera and asked if I could take some photos.

“No photos, at least not now.”

“Well?” she asked.

I knew what she meant. “Yes,” I answered, with inner trepidation, “I’ll take the job.”

I had an appointment in Castine, so I left, promising to be in touch within the week.

During that time, I pulled out my books on van Gogh and concentrated on his beach and seascapes. There were some later ones painted in England, when he was at Ramsgate, but I was sure this painting, if it was a van Gogh, was painted in the Netherlands sometime later than his time in England. The landscape was flat, with a village in the far distance with a church spire and mills. There were known beachscapes painted at Scheveningen, but none with a single figure in the foreground. It was common knowledge that he had stored many of his early paintings with his mother when he left home and joined his brother. His mother had moved several times, and it was often speculated that some of Vincent’s early works had been lost or stolen during those moves.

All week I thought about the painting and wondered how to approach the project. I believed the painting to be unsigned, although I would test that theory when and if I saw it again. Either I could begin with the painting and attempt to discover its artist, or I could begin with van Gogh and try to determine if there was a lost painting that fit this description. Either way, I thought the project much too sophisticated for my talents.

I thought about Miss Brandt too; she intrigued me. I guessed her age to be about forty-five, and I imagined she’d gone to Bennington, Sarah Lawrence, or some such arty college. She had probably lived in Greenwich Village or Berkeley. She dressed in floppy shirts and oddly-draped scarves. As a young man, I would have run from her presence. Probably practices yoga, I thought to myself. I held other fantasies about her in check.

I had gone to Brooklyn College, while living at home. There I studied art history and was able to get my first job in New York in Sotheby’s Catalogue Department. I met my wife there—Caroline. She was a secretary in a new department, British Victorian and Edwardian Art. Later, after Caroline died, I left Sotheby’s, unable to face the walk from the 77th Street subway exit east to the office without her. I was offered a job at the Boston Public Library, researching for the acquisitions arm of the Fine Arts Department. When my father died and left me a bit of money, I no longer had to work full time, and I retired at age sixty from the BPL. Then I went to work for the Society, giving myself the luxury of more time to pursue my real love—the admiration of great art.

I telephoned at the end of the week: “Miss Brandt, I am fascinated with the assignment that you propose, but I am not the person to do it. I know I agreed, but I’m reneging.”

“Louise!” she demanded. “I’m watching a squadron of Canadian geese belly flop on the small pond in the reeds. Come on down this weekend. How’s Sunday?”

I spent Saturday at the Boston Public Library’s Fine Arts Department and on the Internet, and concluded that there was much more about van Gogh’s apparently missing works than I had known. I also realized that without being able to remove the painting from Miss Brandt’s house, I could not analyze it properly. Therefore, if I were to consider her proposal, I would approach it as a historian-detective, not as a pictologist.

Sunday, over homemade lentil soup and thick-crusted Anadama bread, she talked me into devoting my winter “break” from my sales job to The Vincent Project, as we began calling her mission regarding the painting. I felt now that it was my mission too, since I was falling quite in love with the painting. The artist had captured the windy day with scudding clouds and the knitter’s billowing black skirt. He had chosen to divide the painting in half, giving over the upper part to sky and the lower to the ocean, beach and the far-away town. The sea itself was agitated, rendered deftly with broad brush strokes of blue, black and white, with the spray blown back onto the small waves. The sitter was turned to the artist, but her attention was on her work, seemingly quite contentedly. Her hair escaped her cap, and a handkerchief was visible in her sleeve. I asked if I could remove the painting from its frame, explaining in some detail how gently I would proceed.

“Sure! I thought you’d want to. Go ahead. I’m curious too.”

I felt a quickening as I handled the canvas itself. It was so beautiful, so absorbing. There was an aura about the woman in the chair. Despite her black clothing, she glowed with life and keen enthusiasm for her work. Her passion was reflected in the thrill of the day’s weather. Louise caught my eye; clearly she felt the same way.

“Fred, you can’t fool me! You too love this picture as much as I do. Of course you’ll take on the project!”

If my hands hadn’t been otherwise occupied, I might have hugged her, or at least touched her arm. “Yes. It’s a beauty. I’m as captivated and curious as you are. Of course I’ll take it on.”

The area hidden by the frame was not streaked but was duller in color. To our astonishment, we found curled around the stretcher the remains of another painting altogether. On the left edge, we could clearly make out part of a house: half a window, an overhanging roof, and a chimney of brick. On the right, there was a hint of hedge and wall. Although we pored over the canvas with a magnifying glass, we could find no signature on either the front or the back, and no other notation of any kind.

“Well, Fred, what do you make of this revelation—our painter seems to have reused an old canvas?” crowed Miss Brandt later over a biscuit and another mug of tea.

“It could make my detective work a lot easier—more information, after all. On the other hand, it could make it a lot harder. It may never have been catalogued as a beachscape. Of course it may never have been catalogued at all, since you know of no accreditations… or do you have its provenance, after all?”

“No, no provenance follows the painting, more’s the pity, but I do have some hints, some family stories, that sort of thing. Start your search in 1885 when Vincent left Brabant. Maybe like the great ­­­­transcontinental railroad construction, your research and my anecdotes will meet in the middle.”

We stayed in touch over the fall months. Louise, as I was now comfortable calling her, continued to write notes to me about the scenes out her window: a meditative bullfrog on a log, the moon’s reflection on the small pond, and the first snowflakes of early winter. Now I could picture them myself, having been a guest in that remarkable place. She told me about her dogs, neighbors, and small town politics. She asked about my visits to museums and galleries, but never once asked about The Vincent Project. I knew nothing about her private life; as she had mentioned her maiden name, I assumed she had been married. She didn’t seem like a lonely person, and her notes to me were friendly, but not cloying. My own life, when I was not on the road, was quite solitary, sometimes lonely, and I looked forward to mail from her.

In early December my schedule allowed me to concentrate on our project.

It seems that when Vincent departed for Antwerp and then Paris, he left paintings, watercolors, and drawings behind at his mother’s house. When she and Vincent’s sisters moved to Breda the next year, they hired Janus Schrauwen to move their things, and what would not fit into the new house, they asked Schrauwen to store in his warehouse. She gave a few canvases to a young boy, the son of her landlord, who was keen on drawing. In 1889, three years after moving to Breda, Vincent’s mother moved again, this time to Leiden, leaving many chests and all of Vincent’s things in Schrauwen’s care.

When lying in my bed at night, I envisioned the conditions at Schrauwen’s: an igloo in winter, an oven in summer; rats, mice, and mold. I could imagine a leaking roof and a shutter not quite closed, letting in dust, seeds, wind, rain and snow. How, I wondered, could anything survive such conditions?

I learned that when Vincent and then his brother died in 1890 and ’91, Schrauwen realized that it was unlikely that anyone would ever come for the van Gogh’s belongings, and he gave away some of the paintings to boys in his neighborhood and then called in a secondhand merchant, a rag picker really, to get rid of it all to make space in his warehouse. Schrauwen kept the chests to reuse the wood, and sold all their contents and everything else for one guilder.

Jan Couvreur, the rag picker, quickly burned or gave away all the nudes and the chalk drawings and sold the large canvases to a man who would strip off the paint and reuse the cloth. Couvreur thought the paintings were melancholy rubbish, but he put some of them and several drawings into his handcart and tried to sell them in the weekend flea market in the Butter Hall. After a few years, between selling a few of Vincent’s drawings and paintings for as low a price as three for ten cents and giving some away to his creditors, Couvreur had distributed Vincent’s artwork all over Breda’s walls—in homes, bars, markets, and meeting rooms.

One of Couvreur’s last customers was Kees Mouwen. Mouwen loved the few paintings that he bought, and asked Couvreur to find more for him. Now the tables reversed, and Couvreur began buying Vincent’s artwork back from his Breda neighbors in order to sell them to Mouwen. Couldn’t I just picture Couvreur licking his chops over his profits!

The Christmas holidays interrupted my search, and I went to spend a few days with my mother in her retirement village in northern New Jersey. She would be ninety on her next birthday, and although she had outlived most of her relatives and friends, she was in good health, and, remarkably, quite happy with her life. She never put pressure on me to visit more often, and probably for that reason, our times together were loving, even fun. She was always interested in my art scholarship, and shared my love of genre paintings from the lowlands. While other children of elderly parents in the retirement village gave scarves and candy as Christmas presents, I always gave my mother art books, and her collection was quite extensive.

I told her I had become interested in van Gogh, and together we went to her shelves and found there wonderful reproductions of well-known works. Without mentioning The Vincent Project, I told her the story of the van Gogh paintings and drawings in Breda and how most of them had never been catalogued or even found. She loved the story of Couvreur, and I could imagine her retelling it to friends over dinner.

“Couvreur doesn’t sound Dutch, does it? But, as you know, Fred, my mother’s maiden name was Marÿnissen, and all four of her grandparents came from Holland. It doesn’t sound Dutch either. What do you think?” And then we were off on another of her favorite topics: genealogy.

I got back to work over the New Year’s weekend, a good time to continue my investigative work with no interruptions, since most people would be watching football on TV. Surfing the web, I stumbled upon an eccentric art collector who in 1939 was offered a chest of paintings newly discovered in an attic in Breda—Barend den Houter’s attic. Well, well! Den Houter, Louise Brandt’s maiden name!

Could any of these revelations explain my attraction to the painting?

I followed the lead and found that den Houter’s neighbor, Joop van der Muren had bought the whole lot from den Houter, and he in turn sold some to Jan de Graaf. This lead was weak, as I didn’t know which drawings or paintings had been found, bought, sold, or transferred.

I did find another listing about Jan de Graaf, and it stood out in a particularly startling way: de Graaf owed back taxes and the tax collector at that time was Adrianus Marÿnissen. Well, well! Marÿnissen, my mother’s maiden name!

That night, unable to sleep, my imagination played with two scenarios: Perhaps a painting was given by Vincent’s mother to the son of her landlord, den Houter; and possibly it came down the generations to Louise’s father. Or, perhaps de Graaf bought a painting of Vincent’s from Joop van der Muren who bought it from a descendant of the landlord. Maybe de Graaf gave it to Marÿnissen in lieu of back taxes. In my sleepy state, I preferred the second, and I imagined this painting coming down the generations to my mother’s mother. Now, I needed to imagine the painting itself: a beachscape with a knitter perhaps?

On a cold January afternoon I called Louise and invited myself for tea the next day. I drove down to Maine the next afternoon in my ten-year-old Toyota, bouncing off a snowdrift once on my way to her house.

She greeted me at her door in boots and anorak. “The dogs need a walk. Okay with you?”

Louise wasn’t the kind of person used to hearing “No.”

“Let me get my hat and gloves,” I said.

We skirted the marshy area behind her house and entered a kind of copse. “I saw two turkeys in here yesterday,” she said. And at that moment, two turkeys burst from cover and half-flew, half-ran, half-waddled away from the dogs. Louise laughed and called the dogs and picked up a few gray-and-white feathers from the icy ground for her collection. The dogs seemed to think this walk was a great success and wagged themselves back to the house with us.

“I can’t begin to prove anything,” I told her, “but wait till you hear what I’ve discovered so far.” I told her about Vincent’s mother, Janus Schrauwen the moving man, and about Couvreur, the ragman-turned-art dealer. When I told her that a man named den Houter was Vincent’s mother’s landlord in Breda, she clapped her hands, bringing a roomful of dogs to their feet in a stampede to the front door. I told her that in the early twentieth century there were paintings and drawings of Vincent’s all over Breda, but to this day, most of them were undocumented, unaccredited. She got a little bogged down in all the unfamiliar names but became interested again when I introduced her to Joop van der Muren and the newly-discovered crate of paintings and drawings.

“How many?” she asked.

“Seventy paintings, more than a hundred drawings, all in pretty fair condition, although a few of the canvases had been folded and would be scarred forever.”

“Not our knitter, though!” she said.

I reminded her that we still didn’t know that our knitter was in that treasure trove. I told her I was trying to find some documentation as to the specific contents.

She invited me for dinner—soup made from vegetables stored in her root cellar. Afraid of the hard drive home on icy roads, I declined. On my way, I recalled her menu and wondered and worried all the way home about conditions in her cellar where she might temporarily store a possible van Gogh. She asked me to call when I got home safely, and I did, using that occasion to implore her to keep the painting out of the damp root cellar.

“Oh, Fred! This painting is like our baby, isn’t it! It’s already safe in its crate, under my bed. Actually, I’ve been thinking about getting it insured.”

The next day I located a web site in Dutch about a collection of van Gogh paintings offered to the Stedelÿk Museum in 1948. I couldn’t understand the Dutch text, but to my surprise I saw the name Marÿnissen halfway down the page. I found a translator on the Internet, and through the miracle of modern email, received her translation two days later.

A world famous pictologist, M. M. van Dantzig, had been hired by the Stedelÿk to authenticate the collection being given by Marÿnissen. Van Dantzig called them all fakes. Not a single one was by van Gogh. He attributed every one to an unknown painter copying van Gogh’s style. He singled out one painting, however. It was a streetscape, probably a copy of one known to be an authentic van Gogh, painted in The Hague in 1882. The Internet article ended saying that no one knew how Marÿnissen had disposed of the fakes that the museum had returned to him.

When the mail came that day, there was a postcard—with Toulouse-Lautrec’s portrait of van Gogh on its front—from Louise, this time with no preamble about the scene from her windows.

“Fred. We haven’t discussed payment,” the letter began. “You’d better come up again, how about next weekend?”

I’d forgotten that I was to be paid for my services; I’d been too engrossed in the hunt and too enamored of the painting to even think about it. And, truthfully, I was also a bit captivated by its owner. Also I was anxious to share my latest findings with her, and to look again at the painting without its frame, so I called and said I’d be there. “But, here’s the deal. No payment. No talk of payment. I’m so enraptured with unraveling the puzzle, and with the canvas itself, I want nothing more.” I read her silence as acquiescence.

This time the roads were clear and the drive easy. Louise met me at the door, dressed for the first time in a skirt and blouse with a cameo at her neck. We misread each other’s signals; as I went to shake her hand, she reached out to give me an embrace.

We shook off that moment of awkwardness, and sat at the table in the kitchen with the pots of herbs. I had drawn a sort of family tree for the painting, trying to map out its provenance. I had the names and dates; the only thing I did not know was how the painting made its journey to this rural town outside Belfast, Maine and under Louise’s bed. Louise was quiet as I explained it all to her. She asked a few questions about my research methods and was particularly interested in den Houter’s descendant in whose attic the 1939 collector found the fourth van Gogh chest.

Checking her own family’s genealogy, which she had from her mother, she found a Barend den Houter, her mother’s first cousin, who never left Holland. All day and evening we conjured stories about the painting. We were both convinced that Louise’s painting was authentic; of course, we wanted it to be the genuine article. I was less sure how she got it. An obvious assumption was that it was left to her mother and hence to her. But, possibly Marÿnissen was involved and managed to sneak it out of the country, knowing it was valuable. If that were the case, my family might have inherited it, we both realized. If so, however, how could it have found its way to Louise Brandt’s?

Louise invited me to spend the night in her extra bedroom, as it was getting quite late and we wanted to continue our conversation. She made us an omelet for dinner, and with it we opened a bottle of wine. Louise had lit several candles in mismatching holders. Some music, vaguely French and decidedly twentieth century, was softly playing from her kitchen iPod speakers. We finished the entire bottle of wine, talking about favorite places, movies, and novels. She had just finished Sons and Lovers, and was in thrall to its passion. I had never read anything by Lawrence, and vowed to myself to get it out of my local library immediately.

“Fred, Fred, Fred!” she chuckled. “I’ve been fibbing to you, but only a little. I haven’t lied, I’ve just omitted an important fact. I found this painting in an antique store in Essex, Massachusetts. I liked it on sight and asked the proprietor what he knew about it. He said he thought the artist’s name was den Houter! How could I resist, that being my maiden name? He saw I liked it, and brought the price down from $300 to $200, and I bought it on the spot, on the strength of the artist’s possibly sharing my family name.

“I know a little about art, about what’s real and what’s beautiful; when I got the painting home and looked it over carefully, I began to wonder if it were something more. I wondered if it was a van Gogh. I’ve wondered for the several years that I’ve owned it. Then I saw your article about oil painting techniques, and I cut it out and stuck it in a cubby in my desk. You know the rest.”

I’m not used to wine, and my head was swimming. I just sat there grinning. Louise reached across the table and took my hand.

“What shall we do now? I know I have to insure it. Then what? Do I keep Vincent safely under my bed or let him out into the air? Shall I hang it on a wall to admire or offer it to a museum? I could sell it. If it’s the real goods, I’ll be rich; I’ll be very, very rich.”

“I have the feeling that being rich isn’t important to you.”

She nodded.

“Can we talk about this tomorrow?” I realized that my usually-orderly mind was not in gear, but I did know we had to consider having the painting cleaned properly and evaluated and appraised by a real expert.

“There’s no hurry, Fred. But there’s another small omission I failed to tell you about.”

“Wait,” I said. “Do you have another bottle of wine? I think I’m going to need it.”

I looked around her candlelit kitchen and realized how comfortable, how at ease, I felt.

When Louise brought another bottle, she dramatically and slowly uncorked it, watching me—seductively, I thought—then poured out a half-inch for me to taste before filling both our glasses and continuing.

“It’s just this: I have another painting under my bed, and this one did come down to me from my mother.”

pencil

Elizabeth (Betsy) Buechner Morris lives by the sea in Marblehead, MA; but during the winters she and her husband live on their sloop in Boot Key Harbor, FL Keys. She is a long-distance sailor and her non-fiction often appears in the sailing press. Her recent historic novel, Bitter Passage, was published in the fall of 2011 and its action takes place during the gold rush of 1849. Her short fiction has appeared in The Caribbean Writer, Hawai’i Pacific Review, Binnacle, The Evening Street Review, Janus, Slow Trains, WordRiot, PersimmonTree, weber studies, The Hurricane Review, and others. A collection of her short stories will be published soon. Email: elizabethbmorris[at]msn.com

The Messenger

Fiction
Matthew Jankiewicz


Envelope
Photo Credit: cynicalview

Standing on Wilson’s doorstep is a tall, wiry man dressed in casual business attire: a caviar suit, white shirt, and a narrow black necktie. Affixed to the tie is a silver clip displaying the emblem of a skull.

Without saying a word, the man reaches into the lapel of his jacket, pulls out a sand-colored envelope, and extends it towards Wilson.

“I’ve been expecting you for quite a long time,” Wilson says, his eyes transfixed on the envelope. He takes the envelope and tears at its edges. When it is halfway open, he stops and tucks it in his trouser pocket.

The messenger turns to leave when Wilson says, “Please, come inside. I’ve been looking forward to meeting you for months. You’ll be my guest and I’ll accept no answer other than yes.” His cogent voice is as soft as a rose petal.

The stranger tucks his hands into his jacket pocket and shadows Wilson into the living room.

“Please, have a seat. Margaret and I were just sharing a pot of tea, but I think there’ll be enough for the two of us.” The stranger glances around the empty room and then back at the silver tray resting on the coffee table. On it are two tea cups, two ivory saucers, two spoons, and a pewter pear-shaped teapot.

Wilson sits down on the beige camelback sofa next to his visitor and rests his folded arms on his belly, which, having the size of a desk globe, functioned as a mantle.

“Margaret and I love to have tea every afternoon. Her mother was British.” Wilson gingerly pours a cup of tea for his guest and stirs in a packet of sugar. “You remember my wife, Margaret, don’t you? I believe you both met about a year and a half ago, Mr.—” He pauses and turns to the man. “I suppose names are irrelevant.”

The man nods.

“I don’t think she was expecting to meet you, however.”

Wilson treads over to the window and stares outside. A smile creeps across his face. “Beautiful weather outside, isn’t it, Margaret?” he says to the room. “I know how much you love to walk along the leaf-covered sidewalks, smelling the scents of pumpkin pies and apple cinnamon pouring out of the passing windows.” He feigns a smile. His pensive eyes show neither excitement nor dullness, but rest in a perpetual sunset.

“Forty-seven years,” he whispers to himself. “Forty-seven marvelous years we had together.”

He looks at his guest, who hasn’t touched his cup of tea. The man’s black eyes stare at Wilson as though he were some newly-discovered species.

Wilson darts over to the fireplace and picks up a photo of Margaret from the mantle next to a collection of ceramic cat figurines that she used to collect. The photo is dated Summer ’62, Outer Banks, NC. She’s wearing a navy blue swimsuit with white polka-dots. “She sure was a looker.” He holds the photo up for his guest to see. Chortling, he says, “During this trip I proposed to her.”

The stranger’s cold, indifferent eyes cause Wilson’s laughs to wither.

“I suppose it’s time.” Wilson says. He places the brass-framed photo back onto the mantle and pulls the envelope from his pocket. “I wouldn’t want to delay you any longer.” With trembling hands, he tears it open. Inside is a piece of paper with one sentence typed in an elegant script:

Time and Date of Death: 8:47 p.m. on October 19, 2011

The messenger stands up and walks toward the foyer without speaking a word.

“You’re not leaving already, are you?” Wilson asks. His throat feels knotted. “How will it happen?” Beads of sweat begin to percolate along his brow. “Will it be painful?” His voice is crackly, a time-worn radio broadcast.

No response.

“I will see her again, won’t I?”

The messenger turns around and smiles. There is not a single tooth in the cavernous mouth—nothing but the darkness of cold winter nights. Wilson feels a shudder crawl down his spine.

pencil

Matthew Jankiewicz is a current graduate student at Columbia College Chicago working towards his MFA in fiction writing. He has been previously published in The Alembic (2011). When not writing, he is busy listening to the music in his head. Email: matthewjankiewicz[at]yahoo.com