Monday, October 29, 2012

Magpie Tales 141 - Flash Fiction

Magpie 141 photo prompt

"Taking shelter in the dead is death itself, and only taking all the risk of life to the fullest extent is living." - Rabindranath Tagore

Sweet couple. In another life it is me kissing Julius goodbye.

A shower heralded the end of summer and, unbeknownst to us, the beginning of the end of our world. They said the rumors could not be true; I gave no thought to shoes, which one day we'd be forced to do without, or to my hair, which would be shorn and tossed aside. We allowed the heavens to soak us to the skin, turning our mouths to each other instead of the skies.

It is so long ago that his memory has been nothing but an occasional brushstroke upon my consciousness. The rain is, by turns, a fearsome enemy awakening my instinct for survival or a solvent sending bitterness and regret into the earth where they belong. Either way, it is a reminder that nothing in this life lasts forever.

I have never used an umbrella since that day.

Want to join in? Click the link below the picture. Write a poem or short vignette using the picture featured in the Magpie post as your inspiration. I chose the added challenge of keeping it to 150 words.  

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Rain's Gonna Come - Short Story

A young adult story originally posted on the site Figment. Around 2000 words.

     The neon lights wink outside of my window, and while the other men mumble and curse about not being able to sleep, I greet the city lights and noise with relief. Once upon a time the broad expanse of the Great Plains sky, black velvet strewn with diamonds, made me catch my breath; but that memory is from long ago, and lies buried and covered with dust. It was the Black Dust which drove me here, to a life of beds shared with strangers in a tenement, of hours spent sweeping up entrails at the slaughterhouse, of hunger and cold and the smell of unwashed bodies. While there may be no good way to die, there are some that are better than others, at least in my mind. I'll take my chances here.
      I was 10 when we packed up what little we had and left Philadelphia for the Great Plains. The government was still offering free land to anyone who would settle and farm on it; and Daddy had gotten hold of a pamphlet from the railroad offering free passage to anyone who would settle in one of the towns springing up along the lines. When we got to Watson's Junction, there wasn't much but a couple of nailed together shacks and stakes in the ground. Daddy bought a horse and wagon outfit, some tools and food staples, and we set out to stake our claim.
      Those first nights out in the open were magical. The air was clean and sweet, the breeze soft, the sky endless. We worked hard during the day, building what was called a “soddie” - a hut built with blocks of sod, shored up by wooden lathes and with a tarpaper roof. At night my brother and I curled up together and whispered till we fell asleep. Daddy plowed every day, the wheat and corn grew till they were over our heads, and after a year's time we could get a loan to buy a tractor and plow even more. There was even enough to buy me a pony named Brownie. We built a barn to keep Brownie, the draft horse named Violet, and a couple of cows, and after that my folks had quite a time getting me to sleep with the family instead of with the animals. I loved drifting off with the smell of hay and horses, listening to the slow grind of teeth chewing grain and Brownie snuffling and shifting in his stall.
      Then the rains disappeared, and the ground dried up. The second crop was plowed under, and everyone broke even more sod to plant. It was hotter than blazes, month after month, and pretty soon you couldn't find a green thing anywhere. I couldn't sleep for the heat, the arguing from my parents, and the dust which had started to creep in no matter what we did. Momma wet sheets and draped them over our beds, dabbed petroleum jelly in our noses, taped up the windows, but the dust just kept getting in. The worst was the bugs that came out at night. Hundreds of spiders and centipedes lived within the sod walls, and I could hear them moving at night, feel them crawling under and over me so that I thought I'd go mad. The dark became a moving, smothering, crawling thing, waiting for me at the end of every blazing day. I begged to sleep in the barn, but they wanted me close at hand in case of a storm. Not just any storm, but one which was the particular curse of the Plains.
      The Black Blizzard.
      I spotted the first one, and mistaking it for a rainstorm ran shouting and laughing to fetch the family. But as I approached the house, Daddy was heading for the barn and Momma yanking the wash off the line.
      “Jack! Run and help your father close up the barn! Hurry up!”
      Puzzled, I glanced over my shoulder and stopped dead in my tracks. What had looked like rainclouds a few moments ago had transformed into a seething, roiling coal-black mass coming clear down to the ground. Daddy was already out of the barn and running for the soddie so I ran too, for all I was worth. Inside, we started to stuff newspaper into all of the window cracks. Within seconds, it was pitch dark. The wind threatened to tear off the roof, and choking clouds of black dust were coming in everywhere. I could feel it gritting between my teeth, stinging my eyes, and clogging my nose. Even the light from the kerosene lantern couldn't cut through the murk. In the darkness, I prayed for it to pass and for the barn to hold – there'd be nothing to protect the animals if it collapsed.
      It felt like it lasted forever, like the world would end and we'd all be buried by this monstrous thing, made all the worse by not being able to see it.
      That was the first dust storm. The second caught us out on the road, and Daddy tried to outrun it in the truck. Midday, but it turned to night once again as we were engulfed. The headlights made no difference, and there was so much dust piled on the road that we couldn't even see it sometimes – Daddy had to keep sticking his head out the window to try and follow the telegraph poles, even though the grit nearly blinded him and took the skin off his face. We made home, but just barely.
      After that, a new sound was added to the night; the persistent, racking cough of Daddy's dust pneumonia.
      We continued to bake under the relentless sun. The few rainclouds that developed piggybacked on dust storms and dropped nothing but sparse mud droplets. With no grass or fodder for the animals, we took to salting tumbleweeds and using them as feed. Still, they lost weight. Daddy shot the steer, hoping to sell it for meat, but it was so skeletal nobody would take it so we butchered it ourselves. The insides were full of dirt.  One by one we had to shoot them all, leaving Violet and Brownie to plow if the tractor was taken for not paying the loan. But one morning, Brownie didn't greet me; he stood miserably, eyes unblinking and a stream of brown mucus hanging from his nostrils.
      “We've got to put him down, Jack,” Momma said firmly. “You don't want him to suffer any more.”
      I wanted to say that we were all suffering, and that no one was going to put bullets in our heads. I was angry, and I thought of trying to hide Brownie at a neighbor's place. But one more look at his silent suffering convinced me that Momma was right. And since he was mine, it was only right that I should be the one to do it. I buried my face in his neck, breathing in the scent, and he feebly tried to nuzzle me. I could hear each painful, raspy breath that he struggled to draw. My throat was so tight that I couldn't even whisper goodbye, but we'd never needed words anyhow. I put the muzzle of the rifle to his broad forehead, looked into his trusting eyes, and pulled the trigger.
      That night I dreamed that Brownie had wings like Pegasus, and that we were flying far, far away from here. I awoke, startled, and happy for that one blessed moment. Then I heard the infernal winds rattling the roof, and my father's tired voice.
      “I don't think we can recover from this. We've lost just about everything. The only thing we've got plenty of is dust, and we can't spend it or eat it, though it ain't for lack of trying.” He coughed and spat. “Just one more loss and we're gonna have to pull up stakes and try our chances elsewhere. Even with a Depression on, there's got to be somewhere better than this. I keep telling myself to hold on, just hold on long enough and it'll all turn around. But I'm losing faith mighty fast.”
      Just one more loss, I thought. Daddy could save us – if I made him. I waited until I heard them slip into bed, listening for their labored breathing. Grabbing the can of kerosene and some matches, I made my way out to the barn in darkness, scuffling my feet to warn away any snakes that might be lurking. I knew the way by heart, and eased open the door. The smell of livestock still clung to the old building, and I took a moment to run my hands over Brownie's old bridle, still hanging on an old nail. My hand came away with dust, of course. It only took moments for the stuff to settle on everything. The International tractor, the Grand Detour plow – those metallic monsters that stripped the prairie, fueled dreams, and seduced farmers into magnificent debt – sat silent and hulking in the corner, a useless shrine to the god of prosperity. I would send them off in a Viking funeral, freeing us to leave this hell and start over. I poured out the kerosene, leaving a trail for the lit match, then stood at a safe distance to watch the flames leap against the night sky.
      It was only when the barn was fully engulfed that I woke my parents. Daddy struggled, cursing, with his boots and finally ran off without them, but it was far too late to do anything but watch. Years ago there would have been danger of the fire igniting the prairie and spreading into town, but with nothing but hard-baked earth the fire simply devoured the barn and then burnt itself out. We were left, again, in darkness.
      Momma lit the lantern as we gathered around the kitchen table. I drew a pattern in the dust and sipped some black coffee; not the best thing for a 15 year old, but then the water was so dirty it couldn't be much better. I waited eagerly for Daddy to announce that we'd all be packing up and leaving this place for good.
      “Well,” he began, turning his head to cough and spit a blackened gob on the floor, “I reckon the insurance money might be enough to buy some seed, and a nag to pull the plow. With all the foreclosures going on, we should just be able to afford it. And since Jack here's big enough to help, we might get a couple acres put in. There's a feller coming to town next week, claiming that if he sets off enough explosives it'll seed the clouds and bring rain. Could be right. Anyhow, we've lasted this long. Surely, one of these days the rain's gonna come.”
      Rain's gonna come. Those words would be forever emblazoned in my mind, embodying all that is hopeful yet futile in this life. I would hear them, over and over again, as I tossed and turned at night, in between the imagined sounds of bugs crawling, a sick man coughing, and the soft whicker of a beloved pony calling to me to save him.
      Two weeks later, I left my home, family, and past in the middle of the night without a backward glance. A two hour walk got me to the tracks where I could swing aboard a freight train headed east. If I was caught, the charge for vagrancy was four months on the chain gang at hard labor, but there wasn't much that could scare me anymore. I had plenty of good company, and sitting on the edge of a boxcar with a fresh breeze blowing over me felt like heaven. Maybe millions were fleeing the cities, but I was fleeing toward them – places where the wide open sky wouldn't press down on me, where even the poorest people didn't have to eat yucca roots and tumbleweed like cattle, and where the air might stink but it sure didn't come and suffocate you in the middle of the night.
      Maybe the rain will come, but I won't be sitting there waiting for it. I'll be making my own future, here in the city where I'm never left completely in the dark.

A companion story from this Dust Bowl series can be found at What Follows the Plow

Friday, October 19, 2012

A Funny Thing Happened On the Way To the Funeral - Nonfiction

It was during the drive to the cemetery; I was scrabbling for a purchase on the limo seat as we slalomed through traffic, the fossilized cigarette smoking driver (who had yet to utter a word) gently humming under his breath.

No, wait.

It could have been when I answered the door, and hysterical laughter burbled up as my husband's ashes were delivered in a cardboard box within a glorified shopping bag, emblazoned with the company's name. (They were kind enough to enclose a coupon for $200 off of my own arrangements, should I need them.) You see, in making all of the other arrangements I had forgotten to order an urn.

Perhaps it was while I was ejecting some relatives who were snooping about the house, looking in closets and wondering out loud about the deceased's personal habits.  Or threatening a "friend" with physical violence after he was warned not to take pictures of the coffin, but slyly tried to do so anyway.

Nope. It was definitely when someone's eyes traveled slowly over my outfit and stopped, gazing fixedly at my shoes. Trainers, actually.

In throwing together some clothes for an unexpected emergency, I hadn't packed any dress shoes.  And after slogging through days of arrangements, I hadn't the emotional or physical resources left to go shopping.

Hence the casual footwear.

I obsessed over it, believe me. I felt tired, embarrassed, angry and heartsick. What kind of person was I?

That's when I remembered the granddaughter re-telling a favorite story about her grandma. When Grandpa died, Grandma (who was always very careful with her appearance) had arrived at the funeral with two different shoes:  same style, but one was black, the other blue.  It became a treasured family tale. 

It would be lovely to bring forth children in a pastel nursery with no muss, no fuss, the mother perfectly made up and smiling the whole time, surrounded by a picture perfect husband, children with scrubbed angelic faces and the family dog, also smiling benignly.  It would be equally charming to live a happy, healthy and fulfilling life, then pass away quietly and painlessly surrounded by the same loving and perfect cast.

It doesn't happen that way.  Life is a messy business; family can be the lifeline which keeps us from drowning or exasperating to the point of wanting to shove them out of a fifth story window.  We live, we love;  laugh, cry, scream, pull our own hair out (or secretly wish it was someone else's). We fight and we forgive, support and regret, speak and leave things unspoken. We can only try our best, and minimize the damage as we go. Death will come, sooner or later, to us all, and then it is up to the living to continue as best they can, cherishing memories, eventually putting guilt and bitterness aside as unneeded baggage.

It isn't the shoes, but the path which really matters.

Author's note: all of the incidents related are true, although cobbled together from a few different events.

Friday, October 5, 2012

In My Own Fashion - #FridayFlash Fiction

When I was 14, I got my first tattoo.  Back then nice girls didn't do that sort of thing, and especially not those from families with wealth going back to the country's founding. I had to go into the city cesspools to find someone to do it, and that journey alone garnered me the admiration of my pearl clad peers.

Soon everyone was getting tatted up, and no one glanced twice at my diminutive, blood dripping skull.

The diamond stud set in my chin drove my grandmother to mass every day for a month; but eventually, even the priest was sporting a piercing in his off hours.

Once I came into my rightful inheritance, my English Bulldog Rosie wore only the finest designer garments and an emerald studded collar.  Alas, it seemed as though everyone was outfitting their cherished pets, and no one looked twice at Rosie, who soon died from a broken heart (although the vet seemed to think it was his diet. As though I would feed my pet dog food!).

The chrome wrap on my Bugatti was copied by a teenie bopper, everyone is getting into the Japanese bagel head fad I sported for an evening, and there's no sense in trying to compete in the outrageous breast category - I'm far too petite to consider a 102ZZZ cup size.

But now I think I've finally found a suitable means of demonstrating both my prodigious financial resources and my cutting edge sense of fashion. It wasn't easy to find a doctor, but when you've got money nothing, and I mean nothing, is out of reach. Pun intended.

I knew I'd find a surgeon somewhere who would do the job.

For tonight's gala, I'll be choosing a platinum based, ruby and diamond encrusted arm from my burgeoning collection of fashionable prosthetics.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Liberty - Flash Fiction

Descent Of A Horse Down A Mine-Shaft

The single bell signaling the cage to be lowered sounded at the wrong time of day; it would be hours until the coal miners' shift would be finished.  Multiple rings announced the unscheduled visit of an important personage, and so those below could only surmise that the rumoured pit horse was making its descent into the netherworld.

Old John, the stableman, summoned several of the youths working in a nearby gallery to stand by.  They were more than eager to drop their tools and steal a moment of respite, not to mention experiencing the  excitement of seeing whether the animal would arrive half-dead from shock, or even expired, as various legends maintained.  The pit ponies already occupying the stables 1500 feet down had been there when the boys first "went down" and likely would remain there until retired, when they were hauled back to the surface to go mad with sudden freedom.

The unfortunately named Liberty, bound and netted for safety, thus passed through the seasons of the shaft, having lost those from the earth above. Winter during the first cold, drafty 500 feet; Spring and its showers while passing through the water table; Summer with its breathless heat in the bowels of the earth; and finally Autumn, as he arrived at the stable platform, redolent with its scent of cut hay and livestock.  The horse was unfastened and lay, for a moment, in stunned lethargy; then climbed to his feet, trembling and with rolling eyes. He was led off peaceably enough by Will, the stableman's son, who was  lucky in that a crooked spine and damaged foot had ordained that he be deemed unfit for mining coal or working in the haulage tunnels.

Man and beast toiled in the bowels of the earth, day in and day out; and while Liberty learned to accept his work in dumb obedience, he never ceased to greet each new shift of men with a trumpeting whinny and several well aimed kicks at whatever was near. Perhaps in some sense he was capable of resenting his enforced bondage, or it might have been the few wisps of sun-soaked herbal scent that clung to the clothes of the men and stirred some long buried memory. No one was surprised the morning Liberty's call echoed through the veins, but the fact that it went on for some time, and that he refused to drag his cart beyond a certain point, did cause consternation. Even Will could not get the horse to budge. The foreman cajoled and finally dealt him a smart slap on the rump, only to be rewarded with a sly shifting of hindquarters which pinned him up against the rocky wall.

His curses were drowned out by a long, low rumble, echoing at first and then increasing as though a freight train was headed toward them. Men poured like ants into the loading area, sweat-soaked and black with the coal dust, calling out for comrades, and scrambling for the loading cages. Clouds of choking dust rolled toward them, and the miners hastily put out all lamps but one for fear of explosion, standing then in the gloom and waiting their turn to go up.

At long last there were only four men left. There had been no other movement of the earth, and it was deemed necessary to leave the pit ponies down below; they had fodder for several days, and once the mine engineers had deemed it safe, the men would either return to work below or try to bring the animals up.  The horses were treasured mates of the miners, and it broke their hearts to leave them behind, but they seemed content enough in their stable.

All but Liberty. He had seemingly made up his mind that he was not going back, balking and biting at them every time they tried to lead him away from the cages.  The three grown men, desperate to get to the surface, were all for leaving him to his own devices; especially the foreman, who now bore a certain grudge against the beast.  But Will was now determined to save him or to stay below with his friend, having learned the hard way that the animal was far kinder and trustworthy than many of the villagers.  When it became apparent that the boy's determination was "as hard as the rock around 'em", they debated the best means of getting all of them out at once. Old John struck on the idea of binding the horse and securing him to the bottom of the cage, thus allowing men, child and horse to ascend together.  The foreman was unconvinced, exclaiming that the struggling animal would interfere with the cage guides, sending them all crashing back down to the bottom. But Will had his own idea; he stroked and whispered to the now compliant horse, soothing him as they fixed the rig and attached it to the bottom of the cage.  The men stepped in, and as Will twined his arms and legs into the harness and hung onto the horse like a monkey, the foreman sounded the signal and the cage began to rise.

Up through the mine shaft they rose, the boy unmindful of the precariousness of his ride, the deathly plunge that awaited him should he slip or the horse struggle and pin him to the side. He sang quietly in the horse's ear and recited the prayers he'd learned in Sunday school. And Liberty, in the way that some animals do, seemed to sense what it was that was demanded of him and hung quietly during the long dark journey to the surface.

They were greeted with hurrahs as they came above ground; and since it had been ascertained that the far off cave-in had not cost a single life, the jubilant miners were given three days holiday to enjoy as they chose.  Liberty, who had never fully accepted his underground sentence and spent a scarce six months there, was overjoyed to return to the sun and open skies.  As the hero who predicted the cataclysm, perhaps saving lives in the bargain, he was given a place of honor in the miner's village, permitted to roam freely, help himself to their gardens and shelter wherever he chose. But it was to Will that he always returned, thrusting his head into the boy's window to his mother's consternation, clomping into the kitchen when the door was left ajar, and generally making a genial pest of himself.  And it was Will, as a grown man, who buried him under a favorite mulberry tree and painstakingly carved his name into a giant piece of coal.