Friday, February 25, 2011

Doing Time - Flash Fiction

This is an older post, but I went back and made a correction or two and somehow it jumped to the top of the queue. Sorry if you already read it...the NEW story is just after this one. My apologies!

Jude ruled The Place. He was proud of it; after all, he'd only transferred there 3 months ago, from a smaller facility upstate. Same old system, though, just on a larger scale. A cinder block building, exercise yard of baked and beaten dirt, and guards watching every move. The inmates never changed either. Snitches, bullies, sissies, and the occasional loco that everyone knew to avoid or placate, depending on the look in his eyes. But Jude had known enough to come in strong, to find the pack leader and make him submit, to bribe and threaten the snitches to work for him. He had 6 more years left on his sentence, without the option of early release for good behavior.

He sauntered over to the wall and idly ran his finger along the edge. A chunk of concrete about the size of his hand moved. Jude turned and, with his back to the wall, made a great show of scratching one arm, then the other. Finally, he reached behind, presumably scratching his back as well but removing the loose piece of block and palming the scrap of paper which lay inside the crevice.
"Shirt down!" barked the middle-aged, stocky guard leaning up against the nearby fence.
Jude snapped off a salute and sauntered away as the others hooted appreciatively. The guard went back to examining his fingernails.

Got it! T was scrawled on the note. He quickly put it in his mouth, molding it into a sodden ball and then spitting it at the back of his friend's head. They had marched inside and taken their places in the chow line. A row of unsmiling women ladled congealed food onto trays as they jockeyed for position and complained loudly about the smell. Jude took his place at the "head" table and wolfed his lot down. The lanky blond across from him dropped a roll, and as he bent to pick it up Jude felt a hand on his ankle, then a small cylindrical object pushed into his sock.

They were permitted 15 minutes of leisure time after lunch, and Jude sat pensively looking out the window. What he was about to do made no sense, really. If he was caught, there would be consequences. An interview with the Warden. Interrogations. Maybe even a beating. All to create mayhem, to break the endless cycle of hopelessness and boredom, and yes, to enhance his standing among the others. He made his decision; he stood up, walked quietly over to the guard, and murmured a few words. He presented the pass he'd been given. Then, with a pounding heart, he left the room.

Jude had just returned when a loud report issued from somewhere in the building. Within seconds, a siren was wailing, strobe lights blinked in the ceiling, and the acrid aroma of smoke began to fill the building. Guards shouted orders and herded their charges into some semblance of order.

"Line up! No talking! Keep together!" they shouted. But there was no containing the inmates' excited chatter and laughter. They danced around the water on the floor and held their noses as the smell of sewage became evident as well. Once outside, they milled around in small groups, enjoying the arrival of police and fire personnel. They clapped and called "Here doggie doggie" when the K9 team arrived. And Jude felt very pleased with himself.

He hadn't been sure if he'd judged the fuse quite right, but he'd been safely back in the room by the time it went off. It had been tricky; he'd whistled loudly in the hallway to announce his presence, made sure that everyone saw him trundling the cart full of books from the library, then neatly slipped into the restroom, placed the M80 and got back before it went off.

There's nothing like blowing up a toilet to boost student morale.

It looked like it was going to be a great year at Parcola Junior High.

Mariner - Flash Fiction

     I loved water, even as a child. The sounds of the sea, a burbling brook, rain puddles, even the dew on the grass which revealed the stealthy comings and goings of rabbits and voles. I have looked forward to this all of my life.
     The wind is humming outside and a gentle rain is falling. I lie half asleep, gently rocking on the water. How utterly soothing it feels, hearkening back to the cradle or even the womb, I suppose. I slip into sleep.
     I awaken to find that the wind is now howling outside, the falling raindrops sound like spent bullets, and I am soaked through. Oddly enough, there are no more waves. Bailing out the water around me seems an impossible task; I have never felt quite so angry, or so helpless.
     There had better be a damned good warranty on this waterbed.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Someone Has Stolen the Moon - Poetry

Photo: NASA

Someone has stolen the moon,
and, crushing it in their fists
has scattered it, deep and wide
in ripples and waves and dunes
just outside my door.

It glitters on the nose and hide
of a nimble, dainty fawn
who leaps, stops, and pirouettes;
licking the icy lunar shards
has made him effervescent.

The tundra swans are gathering,
waiting to take to the air.
Every night their skillful wings
will brush the velvet sky
until the moon is re-created

once again.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Hush - Poetry

They are only words,
after all.
But shadows of their future import
flicker at the
edges of my heart.

Whence the clammy feeling
of this dread?
Vestiges of past undoing perhaps,
that started out There's
Something You Should Know

now capitalized
in flashing
neon lights a mile high.
Please don't say it.
Lie, or go away.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

A Mouthful of Ashes - Poetry

I know that you are in there,
behind your silent walls
crafted of sand and grit,
a mouthful of ashes,
a palmful of dust
and fear, the best cement.

I have tied notes to rocks
and tossed them over.

But you consigned me to the desert
of inconsequentiality.
So I must leave,
dragging my bag of shame
yet knowing
that the hope that my words will buoy you
could one day change
to the wish that the stones draw your blood.

So I leave you under a relentless sun.

The well is here, outside your walls
if only you would
bravely come outside,
and drink.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Ghost Dog

We called it our own little wilderness, a 40 acre plot to raise miniature horses, farm a little, and enjoy the majesty and relative peace of nature. What I loved best – and still do – is the air itself; alive with the haunting music of living things, and carrying the mixed scents of the various seasons. I encounter the world in new ways, through my skin and the soles of my feet. And I learn.

The three dogs we'd brought, all of dubious parentage and rescued from death row, adjusted quickly to their rugged life. They abhorred bath time, yet plunged eagerly into the streams and muck behind the house. After removing odd bits of objectionable vegetables and kibble from their bowls with surgical precision, they went off merrily to chase and eat grasshoppers, rabbits, and whatever else happened their way. In warm weather, they eschewed comfortable beds indoors to lie in a snoring heap on the porch. Dan and I, after a time, often followed their lead and slept in outdoor hammocks.

In the clammy mist of dawn one morning, I saw the Ghost Dog. Appearing, reappearing and finally fading into the muted silence of the forest. I assumed it was either a wandering stray, or a figment of my imagination. Giving it no more thought, I continued home.

The dogs were in the crawl space under the house. I whistled, and Bear wormed his way out, looking – well – embarrassed. The others followed close on my heels as I went to fetch their breakfast. “You goofballs. What were you doing under there?” I asked, wondering if they'd purloined something and settled into the space to enjoy their loot. I made a mental note to have Dan take a look, that sort of thing coming under the heading of “men's work” in my mind.

Twilight, and the banging of metal buckets had stirred the horses more than usual. They were milling about, shifting into each other uneasily, twitching and blowing. Amid the noise, I heard it, or at least an echo of it. A choking, sobbing sort of cry, snatched away by the breeze as soon as it reached me. Every hair on my body stood up. I dumped the feed and sprinted for the house.

“Did you hear that?” I yelled as I barreled through the screen door.
“What?” asked Dan, gently spraying me with toast crumbs as he polished off a bagel.
“That sound, like a crying animal! Only, different. Scary, weird.” Our dogs were all accounted for, of course; they were grouped in a silent begging circle, willing Dan to drop something.
“Nope,” he replied laconically. “Probably a couple of feral cats fighting. Don't tell me living in the wild has finally got you spooked.”
Gut check. Yep, I was definitely spooked, but not about to reveal anything more.
“I just hope nobody's set a trap or something in our woods.” The more I thought about it, the more likely it seemed.
Dan thought for a moment. “I'll give Jim down at the Game Commission a call. He can come up and have a look around. I don't fancy the idea of you out riding if there's poachers on the property.”

The dead of night, and I clawed my way to consciousness amid noise and confusion. Dan was crashing about the room, struggling to get jeans on, the dogs were barking and whining frantically, there was a commotion in the paddock, and the raw taste of fear in my throat. Dan, grabbed the rifle and torch and headed down the stairs two at a time. I was in sweat pants, no need to dress, and as I skidded into the kitchen Dan was shouldering his way back inside, carrying one of our beloved little colts, smaller than a dog, in his arms. They were both covered with blood.
“Call the vet,” he said, tersely. I opened the door a crack and whistled for the dogs. Then I heard them, under the house. I knew they wouldn't come out. I grabbed the phone and shakily called the vet. His voice was thick with sleep, but he was coming. It's that way, out here; in the city we had to make an appointment, or in an emergency find our own way to transport the animal. In the rural areas, separated by miles, we are sometimes closer than people living cheek by jowl. Distance can be fairly relative.

It wasn't so bad, after all; little Cocoa had his flanks raked pretty well, and lost blood, but with careful nursing he was all right. The vet asked about our dogs, and about any possible strays in the area; he was worried that a “dumped” dog, gone feral, might have appeared in the area. I hesitated to tell him about the things I'd heard and seen. Truthfully, they sounded like the ravings of a madwoman. Because what I saw, and heard, was not a dog. I was sure of it.

He listened thoughtfully. “You're right, it's probably not a dog. Maybe something close to it though. It's sometimes referred to as a “ghost dog” or “prairie ghost”. You know, coyotes.” He closed up his bag. “If so, it's going to be a problem. They seldom bother livestock, other than chickens, but this little fellow was just the right size. And coyotes are quick enough to dodge the mother's hooves. You'll have to keep them inside at night from now on. Or, if you want, you can hire someone to try and track it and shoot it.” He shrugged. “Some people consider them vermin. It's a shame, patching up people's pets, but on the other hand, Mr. Coyote is just trying to make a living. Your call.”

I wasn't sure I believed him. “We're not on the prairie, Jay. We're in the Northeast.”
He smiled. “I assume you haven't heard about the three which showed up at Columbia University in Manhattan last year.”

What to do? The dogs were obviously petrified of their wild cousins. I burned with anger as I re-bandaged Cocoa's wounds, yet I found the idea of shooting a wild creature in cold blood appalling. Dan felt the same way.
“Predators, prey, beauty, death, all part of nature. Still, we have to do something to protect our stock. I don't know what.”

Nature, and the Internet, provided an answer.

We hired a night watchman. Sort of. He works for room and board. His charges regarded him warily at first, perhaps because of his regal bearing and no nonsense expression. Or his unappealing habit of spitting. At any rate, the coyote appears to have moved on and the horses are safe.

Hurricane, our new guard llama, is on the job.

Based on a true story - names and a few details changed.

Coyote: photo, Nat'l Park Service US

Guard llama for horse farm in PA.
(Yes! Really!)

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Medieval Medicine, 21st Century Style (Nonfiction)

Warning: Not For the Squeamish.

1.Biotherapeutics. 2.Hirudotherapy. 3.Biodebridement. 4.Ichthiotherapy. It's very kind of the medical world to use scientific jargon to disguise some rather unpleasant aspects of medicine. So let's redefine them in everyday language, in order:  1.organisms used for therapeutic purposes. 2.Bloodsucking leech therapy. 3. Removal of dead/decaying flesh by application of maggots. 4. Removal of dead skin bits by nibbling little fish.

The use of leeches goes back at least as far as the ancient Greeks and Romans, based on the idea that illness was the result of imbalances in the 'four humours', and that draining off bodily fluids, including blood, would restore a proper balance. Bloodletting was prescribed for everything from headaches to morning sickness to drunkenness. The application of leeches was a kinder and gentler treatment than some of the other options, including venesection (opening a vein to let blood) and the use of harsh purgatives and laxatives. The leech bite may feel like a little pinprick, but supposedly contains a compound which acts as an anesthetic so the host doesn't detect its presence. To keep the blood flowing, leech saliva also contains an anticoagulant called hirudin. Once they've drunk their fill, they simply drop off; the contact site will continue to bleed for a short time. Leeches were extremely popular in medieval times; Henry VIII in particular was bled frequently. (He probably would have benefited more from  biodebridement, due to the ulcers on his legs, but more on that later.) Leeching was popular well into the late 1800s, then began to taper off gradually as medicine evolved more technologically advanced methods of surgery and wound care. In 1960, two Yugoslavian surgeons used leeches during skin transplants, and were published in the British Journal of Plastic Surgery. Through the years, leeches gradually gained more acceptance, most notably in cases of limb reattachment and to reduce swelling and blood congestion in areas of the body not easily lanced or which are unresponsive to 'conventional' treatment.  You can easily buy leeches through several different suppliers. (Please consult your physician or health care provider before applying. As they are classified as medical devices, they might even be covered under your health insurance plan...if you've got one.)

Maggots are a little less popular, but still have their uses. Not just any maggots, however. Some species are inclined to destroy living tissue, so the larvae of the blowfly are used, since they strictly consume dead and/or decaying matter. They ooze digestive juices into the wound, then suck up the resulting slurry of liquefied tissue and bacteria, leaving healthy tissue untouched. This makes them useful in treating wounds which won't heal properly or which are infected with resistant bacteria. Pam Mitchell benefited from maggot therapy when she developed an infected foot due to diabetes and it didn't respond to any other treatment including antibiotics. It probably saved her foot from amputation. She went on to serve on the board of the Biotherapeutics Education and Research Foundation, which champions the use of maggots and leeches and sometimes provides them to patients who lack insurance coverage. (If you've seen the movie Gladiator, you might remember Russell Crowe's character having his wounds treated with them.)

Ichthiotherapy commonly uses the Garra rufa species of fish to treat skin conditions such as psoriasis and eczema; it has also been popping up at various spas and salons as a means of removing dead skin and callouses from the foot as part of a pedicure. The fish have no teeth, so it's not painful; people describe it as feeling 'ticklish' or 'nibbly'. Several states in the US ban the use of them in non-medical settings, mostly out of concern that people sharing the same fish/water/container could conceivably pass on or contract disease. I have to admit it; I'd like to give it a try. Maybe the next time I'm visiting Virginia, home of Doctor Fish Massage Inc.

In this age of robotics and advanced technology, isn't it nice to know that we can still depend on earth's friendly little creatures to save the day?

                                                      Maggots at work. NIH US photo.

Further information: Book, Honey, Mud, Maggots and Other Medical Marvels by Robert and MicheleRoot-Bernstein (Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 1997)

TV, Creepy Healers, National Geographic special which aired in 2003. Maybe they'll run it again sometime. Worth watching. Especially with snacks.


                BTERFoundation   Bio Therapeutics, Education and Research Foundation

                science3point0   In the comments section of my article reprint here, Sheri Rosen has left a great synopsis of recent content updates and developments on the BTERF site. Unfortunately, when I originally reviewed the site, there didn't appear to be much recent activity or recent news/announcements, and I jumped to the conclusion that the site might not be current. I chose not to include a link, which was obviously the wrong thing to do. The professional and courteous thing for me to do would have been to contact them and inquire. And so I offer my apologies again, thank Dr. Ronald Sherman MD and Ms. Rosen for gently correcting me, and have  included a link. Check them out - it's a fascinating topic!


Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Blindsided - Flash Fiction

"I took a deep breath and listened to the old bray of my heart:  I am, I am, I am."
- Sylvia Plath

She was 10 the first time it happened. So delighted that she'd managed to catch, and hang on to, the ball, that she forgot to run.

A crushing blow, and then she was on the ground, looking up at a sky so incredibly blue that she wondered if it had always been so. There was no pain, then, only the shadow of it crouching close by;  her entire being was fixed on her next breath, which would not come. Is there any other feeling to compare? Time, the most slippery of our perceptions, expands to infinity when the body cannot draw breath. We hover somewhere on the brink of reality, everything else ceases to matter, and the world as we know it is now of no consequence. Once experienced, it is something that we never want to feel again, and know we will never forget.

And so she lay there, eyes fixed on the circle of faces which had now appeared above her. They wore concerned expressions, their lips moved, but their words were lost somewhere on the way down. She wanted to say something, anything; but it proved impossible. There was nothing to do but wait. Alone.

Finally, it arrived, one shuddering gasp, and with it a cacophony of sound and suffering.  She struggled to her feet, brushing off the assistance of others, pasting a smile on her face and walking off, albeit shakily, to take stock of the damage by herself. She would not cry.

Thirty years later, and here she is again, trapped in that forever moment. Once again, it comes. One breath. Then another. She will walk away from this as well. She will not cry.

She hangs up the phone. And she cries.