The stage was set, the performance about to begin. Cupid aimed his arrow at Véronique. She was not a willing participant in this grand guignol. Alas, poor Yorick, wearing a wretched grin — his was not a speaking role, stuck as he was between la dame and the ridiculous Louis, whose eyes rolled relentlessly heavenward. The bit players barely noticeable at the back. All of them waiting for the houselights to dim. As they did every day, except for Sunday when the public attended church to confess the sin of misplaced curiosity.
At the front of the stage, there was no mask to represent comedy. Tragedy was the only play held here.
n.b. My friend Barbara is currently on a Viking River Cruise. She’s been generous in sharing her photos with those of us who are stuck at home. One of the places she visited was Český Krumlov in the Czech Republic. There were a couple of museum-y kinds of places with large collections of puppets and marionettes. This evolved from one of the photos she posted. My imagination ran a little wild. I am thinking of making my own strange tableau.
The thing I am about to tell you might have happened once upon a time. It could have been last week. It makes no difference, the truth is truth no matter when it happens.
In the place where my mother used to live, there were three tongues, each in a different mouth, and of all the tongues that resided in this particular place, these three were the most slithering and maleficent. Not one, but three serpents in the Garden of Eden.
The first tongue belonged to a woman named Helen. Helen was a person who lived on a high moral ground in a great house she richly deserved. She lived alone. Her husband had been a fisherman who fell (some thought dove) from his boat one stormy afternoon and was never seen again. There were three daughters, but each had left to marry, one after the other and all of them lived very far away.
The second tongue belonged to a woman who never married, never gave birth, never so much as cared for a cat because she simply did not have time. Her job, she believed, was to mind the lives of others, and she did so with a ferocity few could circumvent. Her name was Agnes.
The last tongue belonged to a man named Thomas. He also lived alone, unable ever to settle on a wife. Though there were many fine women in the area, none had ever quite suited him. His standards were much too high. Eventually, no one tried anymore to leap the hurdles he had set.
Communities generally have a way of getting along. They mind their own business, or they help when they are able. They offer comfort as needed, a joke, a helping hand, or even silent company when silence is the only thing that will do. In the place where my mother lived all of these things were true. It was also true that there was often anger and resentment that when allowed to fester would erupt in a cataclysm of bitter words and flying fists. Sometimes people broke the law. When that happened there was a price they would have to pay.
What is the price to pay for unrelenting meanness?
In this case, that price began to be tallied up with a wish made by a child. A young boy who delivered eggs to the owners of those sharp tongues. One day, after enduring yet another round of, you clumsy dolt, mind those eggs, and, took you long enough you lazy baboon, and, don’t look at me like that, you rude brat, the boy returned home and wrote: I wish THEY would disappear on a piece of paper. His mother found the paper and asked him what he meant. When he told her she did not scold him. Later, she told her husband what the boy had wished. The next day he told a co-worker about it. The co-worker nodded.
“Yes,” said the co-worker, a man who lived across the street from Helen and had gone to school with Agnes and Thomas. “That is a good wish.”
The co-worker told his wife about the boy’s wish. Three afternoons each week, the man’s wife scrubbed Helen’s kitchen and bathrooms, dusted furniture, and washed windows all while listening to Helen rant. You can’t clean spit, my kitchen is too filthy to use, and if I didn’t follow you around the house, you’d probably rob me blind. I only keep you on because that’s the kind of person I am. Too nice for my own good.
The co-worker’s wife made a wish, too.
When Agnes railed at the woman who cut her hair, I should sue you for incompetence you imbecile, the hairdresser made a wish.
Thomas screamed at a teacher and her fifth-grade class for raking and pulling up weeds in the lot next to his house. You and your brats are getting dirt in my yard. I should have you fired, you’re too stupid to be in charge of kids. Later that day the teacher and her students each went home and made a wish.
For weeks, people wished and wished. Almost always the same wish. I wish THEY would disappear. Except for one. Feeling ashamed of making such a dire wish and being caught out, the little boy who delivered eggs had amended his wish. I wish THEY couldn’t speak he wrote instead. He kept wishing it every day.
Somewhere all those wishes were being tallied. And when there were at last enough of them, something happened.
One morning the sun rose high in the sky over the river that ran through that place. People went about their business not noticing at first, how much lighter the air felt, how warm and inviting the sun was. People smiled and said hello to one another and it wasn’t until a few hours later that they realized the lightness came from the fact that no one had heard the three awful tongues. The bravest in the place went to check. First to Helen’s house. Then to Agnes’s. Finally Thomas’s. No one was there. In fact, it looked as though no one had lived for a very long time at any of those three homes.
But, where three people had vanished from their homes, it also happened that at a lonely spot along the river there suddenly appeared three magnificent trees in a cluster, heads bowed, whispering together as if trying to make sense of how they came to be there.
Let this be fair warning to you: Do not use words to inflict pain. There is no reward waiting — in this world or others — for sharp tongues and wicked minds.
This is not a lesson easily learned.
On the other hand, the trees would be lovely for a long time to come. The town set out picnic tables by the river so that people could sit and watch the water and time drift leisurely past. And where the only sound they heard (besides their own voices) came from the gentle rustle of leaves above them.
n.b. The photo is a picture of the trees along the St. Lawerence River in Akwesasne where my mother lives. This is the view from her window. I’ve had this photo and the idea that these trees were gossiping mulling around in my brain for awhile. A long time ago my mother told me a story from when she was a little girl living at Akwesasne, about an old woman who was thought to be able to transmute herself at will into a pig. That’s where the idea of transmutation came from. And these days there seem to be so many people speaking such unkind words, I thought a cautionary tale was in order.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a mother in possession of a young child must be in want of a crystal ball.
She wasn’t afraid of anything: Smoldering fire; hail storms of passion; blood-sucking leeches, reeking of desire. Bring it on. Her hobnailed boots were made for stomping, and she could dance, by god. She could move. She could run long and fast and still have breath enough to laugh in the face of all that friction. Drive a truck with her old life across country toward her future? Piece of cake.
She, and the man she knew would never try to change her, made a new life in a place where people lived on fried dough and clams. A baby arrived one winter morning weighing less than the four-layer fudge cake she was planning for her birthday later; a clear-eyed boy careening headlong into the world so furiously that he took her breath away.
But time is a forward moving thing that cares for no one. It will not pause for one second, no matter how nicely you ask. She learned this on a ferris wheel as her child laughed between her husband and herself. The wheel lurched forward and backward, filling and emptying, still moving ever upward, and then slowly around and down, where she asked to be let out. She walked away and watched as the wheel rolled upwards carrying her heart.
She pictured the wheel collapsing, sending the cars flying through the air, saw her husband and her child (who still believed she could make monsters disappear) hurtling downward while she had chosen to save herself. She could do nothing to stop the inevitable. Hobnail boots were useless.
She knew that all she had was now.
Written for the DP Weekly Writing Challenge: Flash Fiction. 296 painstakingly sculpted words. The limit was 300. As is usually the case, I chose the photograph first and let it tell me the story. Apologies to Jane Austin for the bastardized version of her opening sentence in Pride and Prejudice.
Standing beside three trees, red as beating hearts
She found a home inside herself.
Quiet to last a lifetime.
n.b. The photo came first. I wanted to see whether, not only could I write a story in exactly 50 words, but could I create that story inspired by the photo. I like a challenge. Thanks to the WordPress editors for this one. It took me nearly a week to do it. Hemingway, I am not.
The pond was deeper than she expected. Colder, too. She felt as though she was sliding, sinking, falling down down down to the bottom — wherever that was. A sudden flash of memory swam by — Dr. Seuss and McElligott’s Pool. A kid with a fishing pole and a bottomless pit of water that ends up in an ocean somewhere.
Panic set in as it is wont to do when a person is drowning. Her mind stopped making sense. Instead, it fired a final desperate thought: This was how the story ends? Really?
“It’s so quiet without our girl,” her father said.
“It’s quiet because Alice was such a clumsy child, always bumping into things. A walking, breathing cartoon of ungainly girlhood, she was. Never had her mind on what she was doing.”
“Not true. Not true at all”, said Alice’s father. “Alice is a lovely girl. In another story she might have been a dancer. We could have called her Clara.”
A slender young man strode into the library. “Clara? Who’s Clara?”
“Pay no attention to the old coot,” Alice’s mother replied. “I haven’t a clue what he’s on about. He’s a crackpot.”
“Where’s Alice?” the man asked.
“Alice doesn’t live here anymore. She’s moved.”
Alice’s boyfriend was stunned.
“Can you blame her?” Alice’s father said to his wife. “You were always at her about something — don’t drink this, don’t eat that, put the key back where you found it – nag, nag, nag. No wonder she left.”
“Are you saying, it’s my fault?”
“Does a donkey bray?”
The ex-boyfriend turned on his heel and walked out without a word.
The bickering continued. It never stopped.
~Alice makes up her mind~
Alice had never been able to settle. No matter where she traveled, how many marvels she discovered, it was never enough, because there was always one irritation that she could not shake. Herself.
Good, God, she was annoying. Chasing after some elusive thing.
She knew well enough what she didn’t want: Children; factory work; city living; an overbearing husband (or an even-tempered one for that matter, nope, no husband at all, chalk it up to her parent’s lousy marriage for scaring her off that one). The list grew longer the older she got. Her problem was she couldn’t decide what it was she did want.
Boxes were still stacked in the foyer of the cottage. Her cottage. Her new home. Before she began the task of unpacking, she’d gone to a local market and picked up items for a picnic lunch. Sandwich, chips, some fruit, and a bottle of wine.
It was the pond that sold her. The water lilies spread like a cape over the surface, fish flicking orange tails just below the surface. She hadn’t thought of having a pond until she saw this one. And then, when she did, she knew it’s what she wanted all along.
She had one glass of wine. That’s all. Something jumped in the water, and it startled her. She dropped her glass and it broke, cutting her knuckle. Then she accidentally knocked over the bottle and the rest of the wine poured out onto the grass as the bottle rolled the few feet and plopped into the pond.
She figured she’d kill two birds with one stone. Retrieve the bottle and wash the blood off her finger at the same time. She thought about a lot of things in her last few minutes. Like how much she was going to enjoy living here. She might even invite her parents for a visit, if they were well enough to make the trip. Definitely put in a garden around the pond.
She could do anything she wanted now. After all, she had lots of years ahead of her yet, didn’t she?
n.b. The object of this DP Weekly Writing Challenge was to begin a story with the end. It sounded like fun. It was fun to figure out. I hope you like it.
It was a myth, of course. But still. When the end came he imagined going out like an elephant, lumbering off into the wild, away from others. Away from family and friends (well-meaning as they were). Dying should be a solitary thing.
Be careful what you wish for, someone pointed out. He might have listened, but he was young.
The change began slow enough, initially. By the time he realized, it was too late. He cursed about the unfairness of it. He drank too much, and smoked excessively. Eventually, he saw that struggle was futile, and he accepted the inevitability.
After that, his spine stiffened and lost flexibility. His neck took on girth. Was his head bigger? It was harder to move it. Even nodding felt awkward and uncomfortable. Surely, his ears had grown — his hearing was so much more acute. It was spring, and a million birds were whistling . . . warbling . . . chirping. Each call clear and distinct from the other. He could hear the hum of bees that swarmed around the lilacs in his neighbor’s yard.
The noise of it made his head hurt.
His skin became grayer and felt thicker. He noticed that he was more sensitive to sunlight. He wanted nothing so much as to wallow in a pool, but there had been no rain for weeks. The sky remained cloudless, the sun unrelenting in its persistence. So, he rolled up his pant legs (this movement, like so many other things, was becoming increasingly difficult to perform). He took his time at the task. Then he dragged a hose into his back yard and filled his unplanted garden with water. He let the cold water from the hose wash over his head and his back while the mud from his garden rose up his ankles. It was a moment sweet with joy.
Take it where it comes, he thought. He knew, above all, that much was true.
When the transformation was nearly complete, he found that his clothes didn’t fit him anymore. His arms and legs were ponderous, hulking appendages that he could no longer articulate without effort. It might have been more bearable if his mind had also been altered, but that was not the case. His was a young man’s brain in a body that didn’t fit.
All he lacked was a trunk.
There was nothing to do but wait for the last, most useful part of his new self. The thing that would make all the other parts work the way they should. At last, his patience was rewarded. He had it all. He raised his trunk and let forth a mighty trumpet blast. As he stood at the precipice of waiting, he saw the place where he would go: A fern-floored forest where sunlight split the top of the trees and shone rose-colored on one massive tree. His tabernacle.
His solitary thing.
n.b. I was intrigued by this week’s DP challenge on Metamorphosis, the purpose of which was to write about a transformation of human to animal form. It made me remember a conversation I had many years ago with someone I loved. It had to do with elephants.
This is the photo of Stonehenge that set my grandfather’s heart ablaze.
There are variations of my grandfather’s story, but I prefer this one. Mostly, because it came from my great-aunt Sophie, and she never said anything that wasn’t true. Or at least, true enough. She was the keeper of our stories. From births to deaths, weddings to wakes; new jobs, new homes, new dreams, if it involved a Webster, Aunt Sophie wrote it down. That job fell to me a few years ago when, at the age of eighty-two, she fell off her bicycle, hit her head, and died.
(Let that be a lesson for you — You are never too old to wear a helmet. Aunt Sophie would back me up on this if she could.)
This story began fifty years ago when Grandpa Webster had a dream. In it he dreamed that his ancestors had been druids, and this pleased him immensely. The whole wise man, mystical nature thing. He thought it might be true. But, when he told others about it, they said — Don’t be daft, you fool. It’s just a dream. So he shut up about it.
Still. A wisp of the dream remained.
Shortly after that grandpa bought a box. He was fond of auctions, and even fonder of bidding on blind boxes – blind in the sense that you had no idea of the contents but were willing to chance that there might be something of value inside. In this instance, the thing of value was the tinted photo of Stonehenge you see above.
How that photograph took hold of my grandfather. He kept it on his nightstand. It was the last thing he looked to before he closed his eyes, and the first thing he saw upon waking, his wife coming in a poor second. But she was patient because she loved him. And she knew about his druid wish. For even a wisp of a dream carries a sweet, smoky odor that a good spouse can smell. She went to the public library and brought back a book — The Stonehenge Myth — and set it next to the photo on my grandfather’s side of the bed.
My grandparents owned a small farm at the time. Eighty acres on which they grew corn and wheat and raised chickens, sheep, and some dairy cows. (My father grew up on this farm and knew before he was eighteen that he wanted something else in life, but that’s another story, for another time.) Four months after his finding the Stonehenge photo, six months after the druid dream, my grandfather dragged home his first big rock, a four foot by two foot slab of stone that he slid off the back of a flat-bed trailer at the end of the sheep field. The neighbors wondered what use could be made from a stone that size, but my grandmother had an inkling.
Over the next six months, my grandfather brought home twelve more boulders and stone slabs of various sizes. He paid his four strapping boys and their friends to help him arrange the stones in a circle. He borrowed a backhoe and a front end loader. He carried the Stonehenge photograph in his shirt pocket, and when people asked him what in blue blazes was he trying to build, he pulled out the photo and handed it to them.
This, he said. I’m building this. It’s iconic.
Some people thought he said ironic.
Over the years, my grandfather and his folly became legend. There were stories told that he danced drunken and naked in the moonlight among those stones. Aunt Sophie said that wasn’t true. She said that he simply found comfort in sitting in that stone circle while the sun rose or set and he could think about the day ahead of or behind him. It brought him peace.
For my father and his brothers, it brought them something else. There were more than a few times when they and their friends dared one another to strip and whoop it up around the rocks. For them, it was a level of coolness others didn’t have.
We were the only kids with Stonehenge in our back yard.
Fifteen years ago, as my grandparent’s fiftieth wedding anniversary approached, their sons wanted to gift them with a trip to England, to see the real Stonehenge, they said. My grandparents turned them down. Why spend all that money, when they were happy with the one they had?
I’m no fool, my grandfather told his boys.
It was the truest thing I ever heard him say.
The Webster family Stonehenge standing in the sheep pasture on the farm. The stones are not as big as they look, certainly not like those at the actual Stonehenge, but they’re good enough for dancing around in the moonlight.
n.b. This is not a true story. It is fiction. I wanted to see if I had a photo that was iconic to me (for the Weekly WP Writing Challenge), and then make up a story to fit the picture. Also, I have been to the real Stonehenge. I wasn’t allowed to dance around the stones, though, naked or otherwise.
I am a back sleeper. A plank. I don’t move in my sleep or thrash about, even in the midst of dreams. And I do dream. A lot. I am dreaming now, of a sound. It’s the sound of an angry bee somewhere very nearby. I am terrified of bees. I have never been stung, but I know it will hurt. In fact, I am quite sure that I will die. But right now, I can’t find the bee, I can only hear it, and the fearful part of my brain that is not ready to die from a bee sting becomes more shrill than the buzzing noise. It shrieks at me: Wake up!
Then I open my eyes and see a light.
How much time does it take to realize that the light emanates from my cell phone? And how much more to comprehend the source of the buzzing? Nano seconds, perhaps. It feels longer, but I know it cannot be. I reach for the phone and push the on button, wondering who could this be? There are no words in the text. Only a photograph.
In the darkness and the silence, the photo glows. A sphere of dark shapes are surrounded by swirling colors – yellow, pink, blue, and green. Who sent this to me, and why? Is it a mistake? The number is not one I know.
It is impossible to think rationally when pulled from dreams and presented with a puzzle. I try to go back to sleep. Instead, I wonder about the person who sent a photo without explanation at 2AM. A stranger reaching out to someone else in the middle of the night. My head is filled with thoughts of wrong numbers and missed connections. I think about strangers, about all the people there are in the world, and how we are most of us strangers to one another. Stranger danger . . . Danger, danger, Will Robinson. We teach our children to run away.
Somewhere a clock is ticking, but I cannot sleep. My head is crammed with thoughts of strangers. Of long ago hook-handed madmen who lurked in the dark waiting for lovers to park. Of boogie-men and nightmares that carry us away; of drowning, falling, flying. Of noises that bother, unexplainable and irksome, buzzing, buzzing, and then once again back to bees. . . .
Beware the sound of a vibrating phone in the middle of the night. If it wakes you no good can come of it.
You have been warned.
There are so many things I should have been doing today. This was too good a challenge to pass up.