The Piano Lesson

Fiction
Kathy Mansfield


Photo Credit: Damien Farrell/Flickr (CC-by)

Photo Credit: Damien Farrell/Flickr (CC-by)

They fell out of the back of the pickup in a jolted heap of cast-off jeans and worn out trainers, clutching half-bottles of cane spirit and dirty cartons of Chibuku beer, mostly empty now, filling the air with forced laughter. One had a tinny radio and a couple of them moved to the insistent beat of a township jive, their thin limbs poking into the air in some sort of time to the complicated rhythms. Without looking at the white people directly, and for Tonderai it was easier not to look after that first glance, easier to lose himself in the small sweaty mob, none of them really listening to final instructions before the big man drove away in a spray of spitting gravel, but they all knew they were there, watching from the stoep of the neat bungalow.

Nobody wanted to be the first: the first to open the inoffensive garden gate, secured only with an ordinary latch, no razor wire, no security fence. He certainly didn’t want to be the first to force himself to saunter down the short drive and up the three wooden steps to face them; the first to push their way through the front door, deliberately light a cigarette and blow smoke into their faces, drop the fading but still hot match onto the precious carpet, and start what they had talked about on the way in the back of the truck: how they would do it, the job they had been brought here for.

Tonderai, the thinnest of them, the tallest, the one whose nickname on the streets was Stick Insect, found himself first down the drive, the pack close behind, gulping down the last of the alcohol. There were two madams and in front of them, trying to be the one to face them first, an old baas—scared to death and trying not to show it—a bald head, stocky, tough looking, still some fight left him in. There were no guns.

The others were crowding round his back now—come on—just get in—what are you waiting for—ignore the old people—get past them—just get in—

He could see the women did not understand the language, but the baas did. ‘What do you want? What are you looking for? There is no land here—it’s just this garden.’

What’s he saying?—do not listen to him—the old snake—get in there—just get in.

They suddenly exploded behind him and all five of them burst across the narrow stoep and crashed into the cottage sitting room, jostling about among the old furniture, caught in the light of the late afternoon sun streaming through the windows, the distant purple of the Nyanga mountains looking like a poster Tonderai had seen once in a travel agent shop in Harare. He’d never dreamed he would one day find himself in this place, where the big people come for their holidays and yet here he was, pressed against the view while the others crowded about and sorted themselves out. They remembered their plans and lit their cigarettes, and dropped their matches and blew their smoke.

The white people followed them inside, the two women both held a hand up to their chests, clutching at their hearts; he had seen his mother stand like that with his grandmother at home, waiting to be told of another calamity about to fall around them, like the day the headmaster had sent home all the children whose school fees were unpaid. After some pushing and shoving and throwing cushions on the polished floor, the others sprawled in unaccustomed armchairs, two of them spread-legged on an ancient sofa, letting ash fall, tossing their empty cartons on the floor, not quite sure what next, leaving it to him to tell them what the boss had told them to say.

‘You have to get out of this place, baas.’

‘What do you mean? Who are you?’

‘We are here on the business of Comrade Mutasa. He is the one that sent us.’

‘But what do you mean? He was here last week and we heard he was to take the property at the end of the road. Nobody mentioned this one.’

Tonderai knew nothing of the ins and outs of the Comrade’s decisions, just that this property was now on his list and his boys were here to make sure the baas and his family left. They had twenty-four hours to pack and leave.

It wasn’t as bad as he expected: the man turned to his women and explained in English and only one of them burst out crying. He could see they were sisters, same grey eyes and pointed noses, he’d grown up seeing women like them on the streets of Harare, stepping into the fancy shops on First Street—Barbours, Greatermans—never a hesitation. The one who didn’t cry, the wife, remained steady, a homely face, like his mother in a way, her eyes gazing wide at him without a flicker, her hand still on her heart. The husband did not remain calm.

‘What the hell’s the matter with you people? Haven’t you taken enough from us already? We’ve nothing left. Where do you think we can go?’

‘Bill, that’s enough. These boys can’t do anything about it. Get the suitcases. The packing cases are out in the garage.’

He had been told this couple had been chased away from their fruit farm two years ago, and were used to it, so Tonderai wasn’t surprised they would just get ready and go. The boss man had said they were old, that five of them would be enough to scare them off; there would not be any fight in them. The others shifted themselves up and out of the comfortable furniture now the talking was over and it was all settled, and set off prowling round the room, shouting at each other to look at this crazy picture of white men in red suits on horses, or that pot thing in the shape of a fat man’s face with ears for handles. The Shona rang out, clattering among the teak shelves and beloved mementos—more fragile now than they had been for generations. They moved through the kitchen, banging down a pan or two as they passed, thought about smashing cups and plates from the counter top, but couldn’t bring themselves to follow through—the waste.

They marauded through to the bedroom part of the house, peering in at a small bathroom, too luxurious with its hot and cold taps and white rolls of toilet paper stacked high on a shelf. One of the boys seemed unable to help himself and strode in, turning on both taps, taking the round pink soap that matched the towels, holding it in his palms under the hot water, feeling the silky heat of it through the suds. He turned and threw the soap into the bath where it fell with a loud skittering bang, marched out to join the others, leaving the water to pour, bountiful and wasted, into the sink. Tonderai wanted to tell him to turn off the tap.

They were crowding into a bedroom now, staring round at the heavy wardrobes and a double bed, neat under candlewick with a matching cushion on the pillows. A cross over the bed, crucifix paintings on more than one wall—Jesus dead in despair—photographs in frames on bedsides. The wife turned round from her dresser, watching them jostle round her room, and said to Tonderai, ‘Please get those two suitcases from the top of that wardrobe,’ and she pointed to them behind him.

His long, skinny arms easily lifted them down, dropping them noisily at her feet as the gang exploded with whistles and taunts and repetitions—please get the suitcases—please get the suitcases—please—please—the suitcases. Shouting the words to each other, falling away pushing each other, laughing away down the corridor, still pumped up by the alcohol.

Then they found the television and collapsed in front of a football match—Sunday afternoon, there was always a football match. The white people went about their business: books were collected from shelves, ornaments and Jesus pictures disappeared into tissue paper and boxes, curtains were unhooked as the afternoon slid away and the boys slumbered in drink.

Tonderai felt a hand on his shoulder, soft, shaking him. He snapped awake and to his feet, glaring at her. ‘Are you hungry?’ His mother’s face. ‘We’ve cooked sadza for you and your friends.’

He kicked their ankles and told them—the Madam has cooked food for us. They woke and strolled outside into the garden, pissing away the alcohol, and then remembered the bathroom and the pink soap and hot water, but she had a tin bowl and a jug to pour over their hands, in their own way of washing before they sat at the table, the plates they had not smashed in front of them and she and her sister served the sadza and plenty of good goat stew. They were as ravenous as they always were, but ate neatly with their washed hands and didn’t speak until there was none left, and then there were big tin mugs of sweet Tanganda tea. Full, they stood and thanked her, clapping hands as the men do, polite now, and trying not to be ashamed.

‘Where is the baas?’ he asked.

‘He is still packing.’

The others went out into the twilight, sitting on the floor of the stoep, backs against the house wall, smoking, picking teeth, and murmuring now and then, as if they were interested, about the football scores for Dynamos this season. But mostly they were quiet. Tonderai went back into the sitting room, couldn’t sit down but moved between the pieces of furniture round the room, touching, feeling solidity with his fingers.

‘How will you take this furniture, Madam?’

‘We have a friend with a truck. The baas called him. He will help us. He’s done it before.’ She moved round him to empty a small bookcase. ‘Why are you doing this to us?’ Standing there, holding some photographs in their frames to her chest.

‘We have nothing to do, Madam. I am in Harare doing nothing every day. There is no work for us.’

‘But why this?’

He shrugged, ‘We were at the market. Those two youngest boys—they were selling airtime, and that other tall one he is my friend Julius, him and me were making a plan to get vegetables from Mbare market and sell to the white ladies in Avondale. But our problem was we had no money. That other one, with the dark complexion, I do not know him. He was just there when the boss came to us.’

The pickup had stopped and they were called over, offered beer and cane spirit and thirty dollars each, US dollars, given instructions by somebody it was better not to ask questions of and driven the three hours there and then, out of Harare, here to the Highlands, and off-loaded at her gate. ‘I finished Form Five Madam, and still I have nothing for my mother.’

‘You did your ‘O’ levels?’

‘Yes Madam. I got my English and Shona and Maths.’

‘You should get a job with qualifications like that.’

‘There is no work, Madam. The factories are closing everywhere.’

His nervy wanderings took him to the piano in the corner: high polish, beloved, tuned and much used. His hands moved onto the white and black keys, the way he’d seen keyboard players do it in dance halls, but when he did it now, jarring them down, the noise was ugly and meaningless.

‘Here, let me show you.’ She sat down, moved her hands and something beautiful floated out into the quiet room. ‘Sit here.’ She patted the stool and moved to make space for him at her side and he could smell the pink soap of her as he sat. She showed him how to hold his long-fingered hands to crouch over the notes, their thighs touching through the fabric of her skirt and his threadbare jeans.

She explained there were only seven notes, repeated over and over along the long length of the keys, and let him press them and hear the octaves change. She showed him how to find middle C, and called it The Cat and showed him the patterns of the black and white notes and they found all the Cats on the keyboard, always the same distance of eight notes apart. After C, next to it came note D—The Dog, with its two black notes looking like dog ears, close together, then The Elephant, E, always next to The Dog. After that The Frog and then The Giraffe, and Ant and finally The Bear. Then the animals all started again: C< D< E< F< G < A< B always in the same order, living in the notes and working with each other, not so mysterious as a piano had always seemed. He pressed the notes and repeated their names, easy to remember the animals in a line following each other.

‘What is your name?’

‘My name is Tonderai Chiyangwa, Madam.’ He wouldn’t dream of asking hers.

‘Watch carefully now, Tonderai.’ Her skillful fingers spread wide across the animals and she sang the Happy Birthday song, with his name, very quietly. ‘You try.’

He couldn’t get it at first, fingers not obeying, animals not in the right order.

‘Relax. Try again.’ She took hold of his hands with their dirty fingernails and laid them gently where they should be to start off, finding the D and the A notes. ’Like this.’ And this time it sounded like it, the tune he heard sometimes dropping out of cafes in Harare when the waiters gathered round with a sparkler firework on a cake, singing to some happy customer surrounded by a celebrating family.

‘What the hell’s going on?’ Tonderai jumped up as if the piano stool had suddenly caught fire, backing away from the white baas, advancing across the room. ‘What in hell’s name are you doing, Clara?’

The shouting brought everybody piling into the room, crowding towards Tonderai, not sure what was happening.

Clara looked down at her hands, resting on the keys, ‘I was giving Tonderai a piano lesson.’ The baas snatched up a last photo, a large one in a silver frame from the top of the piano.

‘That’s Robbie’s piano! For Christ’s sake how can you do that?’

Everybody waited for her, looked at her sitting alone in the corner of the room on the piano stool, her hands still spread over the keys, hearing her breathing almost.

‘It’s exactly for His sake. He has His reasons for everything served on us. Look at him—they would be the same age.’

‘What’s got into you, Clara? A street boy… a… a terrorist, forcing us out of our home. How can you mention our Robbie in the same breath?’

‘Give me the photo, Bill.’ She held out her hand, swiveling round to face her husband and take it from him.

‘See.’ She held it out to Tonderai—a photo of a tall young man, face almost hidden under a crash helmet, straggling legs astride his motor bike, careless, laughing at his mother’s anxiety before setting out to ride his bike on the country’s potholed roads.

That night the boys bedded down together on the rugs in the sitting room, wrapped in the family’s blankets. They heard the Madam playing hymns on the piano each time one of them rolled over; Tonderai shushed any of them who complained and they listened to the music softly there, playing the familiar church tunes they had grown up with, hearing her small voice singing praises to her God. The next morning she and the sister fed them soft porridge with as much sugar as each wanted and as they were getting themselves up from the table she asked them, ’Will you accept Jesus Christ as your Saviour?’ They all looked at each other without speaking and Tonderai knew what would happen. Each one of them agreed. Yes, madam, they would. They fell to their knees on the hard stone floor and closed their eyes as she stood over them and blessed them, her silent sister by her side.

Tonderai asked her, ‘If I see you in Harare, Madam, will you know me? After this?’

Then they carried out the instructions of the white baas to pack the vehicles with the boxes and furniture and suitcases exactly the way he wanted. The piano was the last item to be lifted and fixed securely with ropes and cardboard. And when the family left they sat in the shade on the steps smoking the last of their cigarettes, waiting for the Comrade to come from Harare to take them back to the streets they had come from.

pencilKathy Mansfield is a Brit, living in the UK now, who has spent her professional life working mostly in African countries. She writes about ordinary people living in sometimes extraordinary circumstances in these countries, though not about stereotypical ‘African’ tragedies: famine, war, destitution—plenty of people write about these issues. She writes about the other Africa: a complex, energetic, and optimistic continent of fifty-four very different countries. Her current project is a collection of short stories set in the context of Zimbabwe. “The Piano Teacher” tries to explore some of the human interactions and complexities that lie behind the headlines. Email: kathymh18[at]gmail.com

His Country

Fiction
David E. Grubb


Photo Credit: Eddie Clark/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Photo Credit: Eddie Clark/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Dad’s call came too late at night and out of sync from our normal pattern of chatting on the phone. His stout voice echoed through the static, but feebleness edged between his words. This particular conversation had played out in my head many times and my heart sank before we spoke any words. A calendar on my kitchen wall marked the date—October 15, 2007—another bumpy milestone on the highway running through my life.

“David,” he grumbled, “it’s time to put my plan into motion. How soon can you be here?”

I had an odd sensation his words were spoken to me in 1970, the year of my birth. Somehow those words had taken over three decades to reach my ears, but were right on time.

“A day, maybe less.”

“You’ll come alone?”

“Yeah, I’ll leave ‘em here until…” I glanced down the hallway at the three bedroom doors of my home standing closed for the night.

“Till they have to come.” The weakness in his voice overtook the strength, ice in the fissures of rocks breaking them apart.

“Yeah.”

“If I could find a way…”

“You’d do it on your own.”

“My old body—I need your help.” Up until then, he’d admitted being unable to do something on two or three occasions, at most.

“I know, I’ll be there soon.”

“All right, see you then.”

“Yeah, I’m guessing late tomorrow.”

I placed the phone back in its cradle. Refrigerator hum and muffled voices from the TV in our master bedroom penetrated the sudden disquiet. I slumped further down in the heavy wooden chair. Shit, Dad expected me to uphold my disturbing promise. I’d hoped that he’d forgotten about our little pact. No such luck, although not surprising since Dad’s mind was sharper than my own would ever be.

Dad’s lifelong journey neared completion while mine continued the stages of midlife construction, the way things should be, I suppose. The same can be said for powerful oaths made in good faith amongst men. I’d pledged the promise to him a few short years ago while we sat around the fire at elk camp.

“I don’t want a fucking funeral.” His words came out of nowhere, we’d been talking about the Rockies and their chances of winning the World Series.

An uneasy scoff burst from me. “Who the hell said anything about a funeral?”

“No coffin, no graveyard—none of that shit, you hear me?”

“Dad, what’re you talking about?” I tipped the ratty, foldout camp chair back a little further.

“That’s not how I wanna be laid to rest.” He used a gnarled, crooked finger to point in my direction across the blazing fire.

“Where’s all this coming from?”

“Your Mother thinks we’re going to be placed right next to one another in the town’s graveyard.”

“And you want something else?”

“I sure as hell don’t want a damn preacher talking over my corpse in a pine box while yins mope and caterwaul, let alone have my useless bones taking up valuable land.”

“I see.” Three empty bottles clanked against one another when I kicked the clump of mountain grass near me. “Well, what do you want?”

“To be cremated and y’all spread my ashes wherever seems most fitting.”

“Where? Fossil Ridge?” I shook my head in disbelief.

“I doubt any of you could find your way in or out of there without me.”

A long, frigid day in the fields with no sign of game had already soured me. “True, but this is between you and Mom.”

“Why in the hell does she have any say in my demise?”

“I dunno, but I’m pretty sure that’s how those things work.” I wished another beer would materialize in my hand.

“You’re right, but does that mean it’s right?” He got up and put two more logs into the crackling flames, which surprised me. We’d already agreed to let the fire go out.

“Can we talk about something else?”

“No. Conversations like this get put off until it’s too fucking late.” His lip curled and he glared at me in an accusing manner.

“Fine. What I’m supposed to do about any of this?”

“Help me hike into Fossil Ridge when the time comes.” He headed off into the darkness. The ice chest, next to the old army officer’s tent used for base camp opened and closed.

“What do you mean, when the times comes? Nobody knows…”

“Oh, I ain’t so sure about that shit. ‘Sides, if I go on my own terms a year or two earlier than slated, well, that’d be damn fine by me.” He thrust another dripping wet bottle of ice-chilled beer into my hand and then eased himself back down into his chair.

“Dad, I can’t do what you’re asking.”

“I’m asking you to help me get back in to my old hunting area when the time is right. I’ll take care of the rest.” He moved his hands as if spreading or flattening the air beneath them.

“This is too much.”

“Yes or no? I’d ask your brother, but he’s gotten too damned soft.”

“You’re fucking serious.” I pried the cap off of the sweat-glistened bottle using one end of his hand-me-down hunting knife.

“I won’t ask again. Yes, or no?”

“You know I’ll do whatever you want.” I took a quick drink and slipped the bottle into the chair’s cup holder so I could hold out my open hands, a show of good faith.

“Yes, but will you do this for me?”

“Yeah, sure, I guess.”

“No hemming and hawing. I want a decisive answer.” His eyes squinted at me harder than they’d done in years, like the couple of times I’d gotten arrested while growing up.

“Fine. The answer is yes.” Christ, did I talk my way out of getting the belt?

“Thank you.”

*

Twelve hours after his phone call, air-bound to my birthplace, I sat next to an older woman whose perfume made me sneeze half the flight. She tried to gab my ear off and any other time I’d have met her word for word. Instead, I gave monosyllabic responses and halfhearted smiles until she turned to the window and dozed off. A large man had plopped down in the aisle seat, took over the armrest and began snoring before the safety video started to play. The rest of my flight was lost to the aggravation of my last-minute purchase of airfare—a dreaded middle seat—and the insurmountable turmoil in my head.

The tight confines of a compact rental car made my three-hour drive from the Denver Airport an extension of utter discomfort after the long, cramped flight. When the browned, grassy flats of South Park vanished from the mirrors my delight to be in more rugged country soared as best it could.

The mountains outside the car’s windows rose up out of sight. Aspen yellows and evergreen firs blurred past while more peaks further off in the distance beckoned. A dreamy town called Bailey rushed into view and I gunned the car into a gas station. The short pit stop became necessary because I needed to stretch and get some coffee. I filled the car up with gas even though the fuel saver’s gauge read three-quarters of a tank. The unbelievable Rocky Mountain air, before winter sets in, tasted savory and the home-cooked meal I’d soon feast upon popped into my mind. The combination made me salivate, but I’d have to make do with crappy donuts until I got home.

I stood at the gas pump stretching my legs and back, disdain for those new buildings and strip mall areas increasing with every whirring chatter of the pump. The unmistakable taint of Jefferson County’s overgrowth continued to expand and overtake the landscape with every passing second. It’d been eating away at nature for decades and this time the urban sprawl was more palpable than ever before. Cityscape would absorb the small town of Bailey in the next decade, if not sooner. When would my father’s plan envelope every bit of me? By nightfall, in the morning, or long after the deed was done?

I slid back into the small, awful-smelling rental car and pushed its limits on the aggressive inclines. As the engine whined I sipped hot coffee and ate large bites of mediocre cake donuts. Making rapid progress towards my parents’ home became more imperative and cleanliness of the car a whimsical idea.

*

The cabin-style log house, nestled in the Sangre de Cristo mountain range, abounded with familiarity, but I’d lost intimacy with my former home many years ago. The same old pictures hung upon the walls, but newer ones were placed among them with similar care. Faces and people I’d never met stared back at me with matched uncertainty about the stranger gazing at them through the glass.

Mom’s eyes glinted with delight as I wrapped my arms around her and hugged as hard as I could without hurting her. I pulled away and the hint of questioning clouded into her gleeful look. The old boy’s explanation of my impromptu visit must’ve been good, but imperfect.

We spoke of our fictitious late-season fishing trip to Eleven Mile Canyon Reservoir as if the outing was real. I wished he’d have let me in on that part before I arrived. Even so, Mom nodded and smiled while we talked about the fish we’d catch or the weather that might deter our fun. If she suspected anything was amiss, then she did a fantastic job of keeping any concern to herself.

During previous visits I’d scarf down Mom’s chicken and dumplings with blue ribbon apple pie, a ravenous teenager. This time I pushed the food around my plate and tried to make it look as if I’d devoured most of my meal. The flavors were off, much like the house, but a queasiness that had developed during our phone call was the real reason for my dismal appetite. Whenever I glanced at Dad’s face my stomach tightened up even more. His features were withered, more than I’d expected—more than I wanted.

His enthralling spirit, which always seemed beyond our time and place, had diminished. How was that possible? The mighty cosmos and time had managed to catch up to my father. Another impossibility of my youthful brain was shattered.

His once-ageless face and acquired old-man posture indicated any attempt at dissuasion would be pointless. The well-known stubbornness would remain unchallenged. Lying to my mom almost became the deal breaker.

The urge to let her in on our secret simmered and nearly boiled over many times while we ate the bountiful dinner at their centuries-old dining table. Disappointment had something to do with keeping quiet, but the small tip of the iceberg had greater mass below the water’s surface. Respect for his wish and upholding the lies for reasons unknown had a breaking point, but not quite then.

The nicks and dings in the walnut surface of the table top became my distraction whenever the need to avoid their questioning looks arose. Stories behind some of those imperfections in the aged surface mystified me like the foreign pictures on the walls. Smiles from what caused many of the known marks remained suppressed, unlike my sullen disposition.

*

As we began finishing the preparations for our trip and its aftermath, I could tell he’d done the best he could, but there was a lot left to do. In a few days, the list of tasks he’d given to me in secrecy after the scrumptious homecoming supper neared completion. He often tried to help me with all the tasks and errands, but he’d become out of breath and too fatigued.

He’d sit and watch me work, his all-knowing eyes pressing down on the invisible weights strapped across my shoulders. He struggled to hold in the corrective words I wanted to hear with a desperation I had yet to experience. His methods weren’t any better or worse than how I did things, they just happened to be his ways.

My mother remained oblivious about our activities and his plan because she wanted nothing to do with any of it. A normal pattern with her and my father. This time I left blame out of the equation. How could I fault her? If I could’ve ignored what we were up to and turned my back upon the whole ordeal, I’d have done it. I grumbled to myself, chastising my brother for not keeping himself in better shape. Would Dad have asked his first born for this favor if it’d been an option?

Hearing his gruff, muted call of my name through the bedroom door on the morning we left wracked my nerves and threw me further off balance. Twenty minutes after his knock and call I wrenched myself out of the sweat-drenched covers. If I’d stayed in bed any longer, he’d have been back to roust me again and my desire for a repeat of my childhood flashback was low.

Our early morning start, with sunrise a few hours away, was typical for him. A brisk, gloomy, late-fall sky held itself above us like winter had moved in overnight. We’d be gone well before my mother would be up, and I thanked her ability to sleep in. Mom’s presence busying herself in the kitchen would’ve made me fall apart quicker than a first-season elk blind.

The standard bowl of hot oatmeal and frozen blueberries went down as if I’d eaten wet cement. More than half the berries were unwilling to defrost in the grey goop, as if to set the somber mood in deeper. Some last-minute preparations whittled away the morning, but we were off right when first light began its soft glow along the mountain ridges.

An hour into the drive, we turned off of the main roads and away from civilization. We headed towards the infamous Fossil Ridge Wilderness area. That self-explanatory name was a magical, mystical place because of his fantastic hunting stories involving the area. Once again the ridge became our destination, yet remained a land regaled of untold wonders.

Fossil Ridge, nicknamed the breadbasket, because Dad killed an elk every year for decades to help augment our food supplies and for sport. An incredible feat to say the least, and unnecessary, because there’re easier places to hunt elk in cool, colorful Colorado. The strenuous half-day hike to get into his area humbled the fittest of people. God’s country, in many people’s eyes, but my father will forever own the deed to that hallowed place.

His new, four-wheel-drive truck gave an occasional protest as we drove over the craggy rocks and washouts of the old mining road, but crawled along with ease. The maroon Ford F-150 was the one new “car” purchase he’d ever made in his entire life. Back then the strange buy made little sense to anyone in our family. At this particular moment, the reason for his impulsive shopping spree became clear. His older, junky truck would have fallen apart on that damned road.

The horrible journey down the often indistinctive road took an eternity to complete. Every other time we’d made the trip, I grumbled about the bumpy ride and rough conditions. This time I did my best to savor everything about the drive. I doubted if anyone knew where the road ended, including him. When I stopped his fancy new pickup truck, the distinctive features of the road had vanished miles behind us. He gave no indication if I’d parked in the right place. All I got was a quick nod to say: “good driving, kid.”

I’d put a few nonessential items in my father’s backpack and not much else. The hike in would be extra murderous, because I’d have to help him most of the way. A cumbersome heavy pack on his old frame would make the trek worse. He hefted both packs while we geared up to leave the truck and I flushed with shame.

Before I could explain why his pack held next to nothing, he winked at me with his most familiar gesture of jest. He set the heavier pack on the ground at my feet and slung the lighter one onto his shoulders. His old body pivoted away from me and he began trudging up the trail whistling “Sweet Caroline.” The redness of shame burned into place and his wink became another picture-perfect snapshot in my cerebral photo album.

In a matter of minutes, I caught up to his lead and we clambered up an indistinguishable part of the game trail as if a pack of wolves were gnashing at our heels. An eerie feeling overcame me because of my novice mountaineering and orienteering skills. Could I find my way out of there?

He struggled as we made our way to the area I’d hunted once in my life, but had been to six or seven times on other occasions. He fended me off with angry recoils every time I tried to help him navigate rough terrain. I gave up. Dad led and I followed, like we’d done for so many years in my youth. The ten-year-old boy trailed his formidable father once more.

The hard day of hiking warbled along like an old out-of-tune player piano lilting out Rodgers and Hammerstein pieces. We moved toward Fossil Ridge with as methodic, deliberate, and determined a pace as we could maintain. Even so, our movement was half as fast as those mistuned melodies at best.

By late afternoon we arrived at the campsite, exhausted and almost too spent to set up camp. Fossil Ridge spread out before us like a green, yellowy-blue cornucopia of rugged, mountainous splendor. We’d made the arduous journey with an hour to spare from my bleak guesstimate when we started out from his truck. We arrived ahead of schedule because of his unwavering willpower and I shouldn’t have doubted him for a moment.

With a great deal of effort, we had camp set up right before nightfall. The edgy night of the mountains moved in on us, and the wintry chill became more noticeable as the sunlight faded away. Soon, the campfire glowed with red-orange coals and we were left with little to do but sit as close to the heat as possible.

We sipped on the beers I’d brought along and stared at the coals in silence under the same trance. Dad and I had been at that point hundreds of times before and always found ourselves talking without restraint for hours. This time the words remained unspoken and locked up inside of us. Maybe there was nothing left to be said.

Two loud, crackling pops of the fire brought forth a handful of flying cinders that landed a few feet outside of the rock circle I’d built in a matter of minutes. The embers were too far away to catch anything on fire. We remained sitting, staring… silent. Those rebellious embers turned from red glowing chunks to dark black invisible masses and blended into the murky night. This fade-to-black performance seemed to take hours, but in reality, less than a few minutes—and then he disrupted the quiet.

“You’ve been the best son a father could ever hope to have. I’m so proud of my son the military man and all of his accomplishments, including your beautiful family.” His voice was weak from our exhaustive exertions, but so strong with conviction my eyes darted over to him. The tingle of his heartfelt adulation coursed over every inch of my body like I’d just hit my first homerun in Little League baseball, again.

“I’m not sure what to say other than I love you, too.” The words sprang out strong and unwavering. The choked sadness pushing them forth somehow remained under control.

“I’ll be unable to repay you for what you’ve done.”

“I can say the same thing for everything you’ve done for me.”

“I guess—we’re even then.” He broke the long stare between us and turned to look out into the blackness.

“So it seems.” I studied the side of his face for quite some time before I turned my gaze somewhere else, anywhere else.

“I’ll be waiting for you right here or at least a place like it.”

“I’m looking forward to it.”

“Take your time my son… take your time.” His voice had lowered; like he was talking to me from out in the inked darkness. This chilled away the fading warmth his adulating words and looks had given me.

“I will dad, I will.”

As though he could sense that a cold chill, independent of the frosty night air, had gripped me, his warm, ice-blue eyes fell upon me again. His gaze gleamed with glowing adoration. I’d always tried to match his illustrious look while gazing upon my own sons and daughters. I hoped my brown, non-inherited eyes came close and his ancestry knew where that remarkable look of a proud father came from. This time I broke the connection that held us together for the last time of the evening. I stared at the dying fire wishing we’d just lit it and were thirty years younger.

Soon I stole glances at him, hoping he might turn to look at me and say the outing was just another glorious camping trip or a big hoax. I became aware that glaring at him would go unnoticed. He was staring out through the dark world around us to something else. I had a hunch he was reliving his bygone years. At that moment it became clear my desperate hope of returning to the house together was all for naught.

My father had come home to his Fossil Ridge.

“It’s going to snow.” I nodded my head up to the sky made blacker from the smattering of clouds fractured apart that were coming together. I’d packed for cold weather but not snow and grew worried about our warmth.

“Flurries, but I’d be shocked to see anything more than a dusting in the morning.” He adjusted his head to become more comfortable in the sleeping bag, but his eyes remained closed. The menacing sky was an unnecessary tool for him to make his assured prediction.

“It’s cold—even freezing.”

“Yes. It’s cold enough, that’s for certain. Good night, son.”

“Good night, dad.”

Cold enough for what? I stirred the grey-black ashes of our fire one more time. No red embers came back to life. I retired for the night and huddled deep in my sleeping bag. The stars were steady pinpricks of light as they came in and out of view from the amassing clouds. I wanted to absorb the starlight to warm the frigid darkness inside the pit of my stomach.

On the drive, he’d directed me to head home when the time came. He said to come back and visit him every so often, whenever I wanted to say hello or needed a shoulder to cry on. Staying at camp for a second night was the start of breaking promises, but I had my reasons. The blustery day went by in such a slow panorama of nature waking up, eking out life, and going back to sleep, I almost went crazy.

The night took even longer to move itself along the lines of time. Dad would’ve seen my fire, even if he was six ridges away, and came back to check on me. I sat there in the darkness trying to keep from freezing to death. Another frosty night and lack of heat source forced me into my sleeping bag long before the stars were lit up in full glory. I gazed up at the twinkling lights and darkening sky with a colder, blacker feeling in my guts than the previous night. My eyes tried to fix upon anything other than Orion, but failed. After a while I wished the great hunger would go the fuck away and leave me alone.

In the morning I made a fire to kill some of the time that was dragging by, as if I could save it to use later. When the sun reached the noon apex, I headed out of camp to find him. The cold, angry ground was still in my achy muscles and chilled bones as I walked due west.

He’d kept that part of our conspiracy to himself, but I had a good idea of where to search. In a little under two hours I found my father’s body, after becoming turned around more than once. During one of those wayward times, finding him became the least of my worries and priorities. Using every back country orienteering trick he taught me, I located him without getting myself lost in the immense wilderness of Fossil Ridge.

He’d traveled to the exact spot of his first elk kill. As inspiration for my own hunting prowess, he’d shown me his inaugural place a few times throughout my life. I bet myself he hiked up there in the pitch-black hours before first light in forty-five minutes or less. Even if I could’ve walked straight there, the feat would’ve taken me well over an hour in such conditions.

When I found him, he was cold, dead, and stiff. His majestic, ageless look was back in place on his face and looked like it could never be taken away from him again. I sat down beside my father’s body and put my back against the same twisted old pine tree he had selected to be most fitting for his last day of life.

I surmised he’d used the tree for the back of his throne as he ruled over his magical mountain kingdom. I sighed and finished the thought. For one last beautiful day, full of life, before the view became an eternity of vapid animation in death.

I’d once heard that the elders in some Native American tribes often did what he’d done. They’d go to the spiritual world by getting up one fine morning before everyone else and leave without saying a word. With quiet rectitude they’d go off to unburden the tribe of their dead weight. They’d find a magnificent or meaningful spot and sit down to wait for the spiritual world to take them back into its warm, loving embrace.

I sat by his side contemplating this and remembered I’d first heard this from him. I was a teenage boy when he spoke of this ancient practice, and I’d thought little about the concept throughout my life until that day. My father was a Native American at heart in a couple of ways, but he lacked any ties to those cultures. Even so, the way he had chosen to enter his spiritual world and eternal plane fitted the man he’d been without question.

For a long time, we sat next to one another as if we were on a riverbank fishing or sipping coffee on his deck, while a lazy Sunday morning warmed itself into a hot Colorado day. I floundered, flailed and stumbled while I tried to touch the connection between my father and his country. I came as close to grasping the link as anyone in this world ever could, but I also came up way short.

It was like trying to grab ahold of a particle beam running between two nebular worlds with frozen mittens on my cold, sluggish hands. The thought saddened me further but also made me glad. Could I have handled the charged volts I would’ve received had I been successful?

I broke even further from his plan. I carried my father’s body out of his final hunting grounds and everlasting kingdom. We owed it to my mother and the rest of our family. Many things dawned on me while I hauled his withered, timeworn body, which was now unmoving, rigid, and lifeless out of there. Fossil Ridge would always be his, and I couldn’t name or think of any place like it for me.

When I became an old man ready to enter my eternal romping place, Dad would welcome me into his kingdom, but following his lead seemed wrong. Where would I go when it became time for me to unburden the tribe as I slipped away from them in a hushed departure before dawn? The thoughts harangued me as I made our way back to his truck, using painstaking care to get us there in one piece while avoiding any more detours. I’d laid his body on the back seat when the answer came to me like a visage from my father who now existed on the other side.

He guided me one more time, or at least that’s what I tend to believe. I’d find my fantastic sanctuary in the netherworlds I would encounter when my own expiration date became the final milestone upon my rocky road. My Fossil Ridge would be found through the windows of my loving family’s eyes as I said goodbye to them from my deathbed at a ripe old age. That’s the way I pictured it in the daydream that helped hold my mind together as we drove back home.

While I stood over him at his funeral, which he’d voiced heated objection to every time the idea came up in conversation, I vowed to finish the promise. The tears that had started falling from my eyes when I first found him on his rocky outcropping in the vast wilderness of his country streamed anew from my eyes. The waterworks came with more fury and vengeance as I made the slight modification to our pledge. I whispered the renewal of my oath to him.

“Don’t worry, Dad; I’ll get you back home. It’ll be tricky, but I’ll spread your ashes right where I found you before the first good tracking snows fall. Mom deserves to think she’ll rest in peace with you forever. Hunt well, great Elk Slayer… hunt well and try to save a few for me.”

pencilDavid Grubb is a retired Chief Warrant Officer after twenty-two years of dedicated service from one of America’s Armed Forces. He’s been a creative writer his entire life yet never focused on it because of career and family. He’s changing that part of his life one day at a time and loving every minute of it. He also immensely enjoys being a stay-at-home dad. Email: grubbde[at]gmail.com

The Day We Stopped Talking

Flash
Stephanie Gail


Photo Credit: Dan Hodgett/Flickr (CC-by)

Photo Credit: Dan Hodgett/Flickr (CC-by)

The day we stopped talking was a Monday. We sat at the dinner table, you and I, cutting our hamburgers apart like it mattered. We never ate them with bread, always on a bed of spinach. Yours with ketchup and mustard, mine with barbeque sauce and globs of ranch dressing. You commented on the dressing before we stopped talking.

The day we stopped talking was a normal day. For the most part.

The invitation was hidden under a stack of mail. Your mail. I’d hidden it there after you opened it. But as we’ve been not talking, the sounds of a fork and knife slashing through the spinach, I know it’s there. I feel its presence in the absence of our words. The ink seeps through the stack of mail, like blood or tears or something.

I haven’t looked at you since we stopped talking. I grab a fry off the plate in the center of the table—the one with the paper towel seeping up the grease. I peel the thing apart and consume it bite by bite. We’re still not talking, but my eyes focus on the next fry instead of your face.

Your hamburger is half-eaten. Your fork scrapes against your teeth and makes that sound that makes me cringe. Since we’re not talking, I can’t tell you to stop. So you do it again. Fork against teeth and the invitation still hiding.

I almost ask how work was today, before I remember we’re not talking. Before I remember that invitation. Before I remember how I can’t tell you how I’m feeling. What I’m feeling. It’s weird not to tell you. Not to talk. But we’re here. With the spinach and the burger and the fork and your teeth.

You get up and walk outside. Probably to turn off the grill. The funny thing is, when we’re talking you always say “remind me to turn off the grill” when we start eating. And I always say “turn off the grill” right after that. And we smile.

But now you are up without instruction. And I am sitting at the table, not looking at your mail pile and not thinking about the invitation. And we’re still not talking.

I wonder how long this will last. How many days or weeks or months. I wonder if we will continue to stop talking and even though I know you are thinking about asking me to marry you, we stop talking and we end things one day and we marry other people and have children with other people and grow old with other people and when we are about to die with those other people by our sides and they are telling us it’s okay to go, that they love us and it’s okay to leave them, we stop. Just before our last breath. And we think back to our dinner table and us, you and I, and our one last regret is the day we stopped talking.

pencilStephanie Gail is a high school English teacher who finds it ironic that reading and writing time are hard to find during the school year. Since it’s summer, she finally has time to write and read things that don’t involve phrases like “formative assessment” and she is very happy about it. Email: stephanie.gail1618[at]gmail.com

Wish

Poetry
Judith Taylor


Photo Credit: Michael Coghlan (CC-by-sa)

Photo Credit: Michael Coghlan (CC-by-sa)

I don’t want death driving
something delicate, like a carriage:
I don’t want Gentleman Death

in his long black car
shimmering by to take me away.
To have to maintain polite

conversation with Death, of all the people!
No. Send me a death
dull and true

in charge of a heavy ox-cart;
with a load to haul, and no concern
for anything in his road.

Death in a shapeless hat,
his old clay cutty not even lit
as he stares away

towards his destination,
never looking to see what caused
that jolt.

A Death who does not stop
and who is mercifully uncaring.
And maybe his oxen look to see

where they put their feet
but the solid timber wheels
do not discriminate.

On the day I hear that wagon rumble
I will lie down to wait.

pencilJudith Taylor comes from Perthshire and now lives and works in Aberdeen, Scotland. Her poetry has appeared widely in magazines and she is the author of two pamphlet collections — Earthlight, (Koo Press, 2006), and Local Colour (Calder Wood Press, 2010). Her first full-length collection will be published by Red Squirrel Press in 2017. Email: j.taylor.09[at]btinternet.com

We’ve Changed Grammatically

Poetry
Lauren Scavo


Photo Credit: Ronn "Blue" Aldaman/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Photo Credit: Ronn “Blue” Aldaman/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

We were a compound sentence:
two subjects and their corresponding predicates,
joined by nothing but a monosyllable.
We could stand alone but chose not to,
and our souls, though independent,
corresponded in subject and substance
so that our names belonged as a unified thought.
Now we are a comma splice:
two thoughts connected in subject
but missing a coordinating conjunction—
the tiny piece of something
that means nearly nothing on its own,
but when it isn’t there, you know it isn’t there
and you feel its absence
in the way you stumble over words,
like they are incomplete or out of place.
We are two independent clauses,
and all that connects us is a comma,
and in that way, among others,
you are like the mistake I made
on my eleventh grade research paper on Julius Caesar.
But instead of Times New Roman,
I wrote you in the shape of my veins,
and instead of turning you in to my teacher,
I introduced you to my parents.

pencilLauren Scavo is a recent graduate of Grace College, where she studied Drawing/Painting and English. Her hometown is in Pittsburgh, PA. Email: scavolj[at]grace.edu

Color Blind (For Real?)

Poetry
Marc Livanos


Photo Credit: BuzzFarmers (CC-by)

Photo Credit: BuzzFarmers/Flickr (CC-by)

Why is my race your foe needling you to lord over me,
saving me from my own savagery?

Why is my skin color a phobia gnawing at your innards,
making door locks snap as I approach?

Why is my punishment swift revealing deep-seated prejudices,
exposing unrecognized biases?

Why is my street flashing “blue”
when verdicts and fines from the 2008 meltdown are reversed?

Why is my excessive “heat” normal
when straight powder has a lighter sentence than crack?

Why is my wanting to explode unexpected
when a child or brother of mine is killed?

Why is my disinterest in school surprising
when suspension leads to a Juvenile Delinquency record?

Why is my broken home shocking
when a JD record forces Family Services to see if mom is at home or work?

Why can’t you see how I feel when redlining my community continues
as Hudson City Bancorp pays $33M to make redlining allegations go away?

Why can’t you see how I feel about Democrats wanting a piece of Dr. King
when they created a welfare system making fathers abandon their children?

Why can’t you see how I feel about Republicans
when they just want another mockery of the Civil Rights Act?

Why can’t you see how my heroes are athletes and entertainers,
not your pandering leaders?

Why can’t you see how I feel when the NBA, reacting to LeBron going pro
out of high school, forces players to wait till 19, while PGA, AHL and MLB do not?

Why can’t you see how your rise from poverty
didn’t require you to deal with what I do?

Why can’t you see how your decades of
pensions and home appreciation were denied me?

Why can’t you see how your decades
of opportunities were never mine?

Why can’t you see how I feel
when you just see me as another deadbeat or dealer?

Why can’t you see how my constant smile and nod
responds to your hurtful put downs?

Why can’t you see how I just want
you to be truthful?

Why can’t you see the difference
is the difference within you?

Why can’t you see your problem
doesn’t emanate from me?

Why can’t you see I’ll respect you
when you respect me?

No point our talking
if you won’t hear me.

pencilMarc Livanos’s chapbooks Panhandle Poet — Solitude and Panhandle Poet — Second Helpings are available at Barnes & Noble. His poems appear in Straylight Magazine, Poet’s Espresso Review, Emerald Coast Review, Stray Branch, Old Red Kimono, The Poet’s Pen, Conceit Magazine, The Ultimate Writer Quarterly, PKA’s Advocate, WestWard Quarterly, Zylophone Poetry Journal, Feelings of the Heart, FreeXpresSion, Shemom, Ceremony, JerryJazzMusician, and The Pink Chameleon. Email: marcl[at]mchsi.com

Pocket-Sized Compliments

Poetry
Theresa Kelly


Photo Credit:  Jessica Suárez/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Photo Credit: Jessica Suárez/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

I keep your compliments in my pocket
On the bad days, I pull them out and wipe off the dust
to remind me.
On the good days, I try to write you a poem,
but the words blend together and get lost in my hands
I’ve only ever written poems about panic and heartbreak.
I talk about everything, but I lack the ability
to turn you into a metaphor.

pencilTheresa Kelly is a 2016 graduate of West Chester University. She received her degree in English secondary education. She has previously been published in Lip, Literati, Daedalus, and Toasted Cheese. Email: theresajoykelly[at]hotmail.com

The Curse

Poetry
Marchell Dyon


Photo Credit: halfrain/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

Photo Credit: halfrain/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

In her prehistoric thinking if no one stoned her
She would throw herself against the rocks
From her arriving spring into the night

She ran away from the moon’s light hunting her every step
She wanted to remain as she was
She did not believe in the evolution of womankind

She wanted her chest not to sprout and flower
She wanted the red wetness between her thighs to stop
You are a woman now, was all the advice

Her grandmother gave with a smile
No more make-believe but woman’s work
No more dolls but babies at your breast

Her older sister had warned her about the curse
Seven times Cain, said her older sister
She looks back at the moon calling her

She tried to shut her ears to the sweet lull of the moon
She knew she could not stay forever hidden from the goddess
But she was determined to try

pencilMarchell Dyon is a disabled poet and budding storyteller. She believes her disability has inspired her creative spark. Her poetry has been published in Toasted Cheese Literary Journal, Full of Crow Poetry Magazine, Rainbow Rose Ezine, Blue Lake Review, A Little Poetry, Medusa’s Kitchen, The Stray Branch, Strange Horizons, Mused Bella Online, Convergence Literary Journal, Silver Blade Magazine and Torrid Literature Journal. She is from Chicago, IL. Email: marchelldyon[at]yahoo.com