Until a tiny thing trips you up (Flash Fiction)

 

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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.

Seasonal lake view

looking glass lake 1

From my bedroom window
I happen to glance out and spot the shroud of sun
spreading it’s last light over the horizon.
Before it melts into the woods beyond the lake —
a lake we can only view through trees bereft of foliage,
from an upstairs window —
I grab my camera to document the thrill
of this single moment.
One in millions throughout my lifetime,
each observed and stored in its own place inside my head,
to be retrieved later (if I can find it) and enjoyed again.

Remember this? I’ll ask myself.  Wasn’t it spectacular?

In truth, it’s not likely I’ll remember
this particular sunset
any more than others I’ve seen,
or the thousand other moments
that caught my eye or my breath,
and made me pause to savor it.
Like our seasonal lake view,
obscured by the fullness of nature,
the brevity of moments like this
get lost
in the plenitudes of life.

That’s what the camera is for.

n.b. April is National Poetry Writing Month.  If you’d like to try your hand at the form, or just read good words, check out these links.  Here and Here.

Collecting details: In the bleak midwinter

Observing, collecting details as “glimmers of a beginning.”  A way of finding a story to tell.  That was the challenge this week.

in the bleak midwinter

Somewhere outside my window a machine hums incessantly for the second day in a row.  Its motor drones, the constant whirring sound punctuated by louder grinding noises.  Like a monster being fed, its appetite is ravenous.  It will not be sated.  My husband would be at the window checking to see where the sound is coming from, which neighbor has wood to chip this time of year.  But my husband is at work.  And I am too lazy, too disinterested to check out where Smaug is being used.  It doesn’t really matter in whose yard the machine/monster feeds.  Noise is noise.

Our yard has lots of trees and an overabundance of bittersweet.  The vine sidles up alongside the trees, curling a sinuous path out along limbs, growing thick and woody until it has strangled the life from the tree.  In the green of spring and summer it’s harder to notice the bittersweet in its sneaky trail below a layer of dirt, pushing through shrubs and other plantings.  We hack at it and pull it up, but it is incessant and wears us out.  Now, in the bleak midwinter, it is easy to see.  The vine coils around some of the trees, already thick as rope.

It’s the chill this time of year that I mistrust.  The trees stand like stark centurions behind the house, the only time I can see a sliver of the lake that lay beyond them.  The sky cracks like a sheet of glass.  Fingers feel fat and numb in no time in weather like this.  Why would anyone stand outside and feed wood to a machine?  I imagine how easily a monster like that could steal a finger or two.  There are no do-overs then.

A lawyer I know once defended a man who disposed of his wife with a wood chipper.  The lawyer is a kind man, softly rumpled, with hair just long enough to show a tendency to wave.  He wears sports coats and carries a leather brief case that looks like it was a gift when he graduated law school.  He has a fondness for Mark Twain, and reminds me of Atticus Finch.  I wonder what Atticus would make of a man who rid himself of his wife by such ugly means.  There is no nobility in defending such a person.  I expect the lawyer had his reasons.  He enjoys reading Twain, after all.

Metamorphosis

wilderness 1 pm

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.

Verboten (in a manner of speaking)

It started because we all wanted a seat on the couch.

As is often the case in large families, there weren’t always enough places to sit.  The living room in our house had enough space for two large arm chairs and a couch.  My parents got the arm chairs, we kids had to fight for a piece of the sofa.  We could squeeze four of us without touching — a key element to relatively peaceful TV watching.  That left three kids on the floor.

Like all good families we had rules.  Number one rule on TV night:  if you were lucky enough to get a seat on the sofa (first come, first served), you were good.  But, if you got up for anything you HAD to say, “I get this seat when I get back.”  And say it loud enough to be clearly heard.  Otherwise, you lost that prime spot to the quickest kid on the floor.

We were a scrappy, contentious lot, but we were honorable.  As long as you played by the rule, your place would be waiting after you went to the bathroom or got your drink.  If you forgot to say the phrase, though, all bets were off.

Surprisingly, there were plenty of times that one of us would forget, and we would try to wheedle our way back into that still-warm spot, hoping that everyone else had missed the fact that we hadn’t said anything.  But there was always someone who knew you hadn’t and an argument would ensue.

One night my father put his foot down.  He forbade us to say “I get this seat when I get back”.  Never again, he said.  My father always meant what he said.

This was a problem.  We would no longer have a modicum of control over where we sat and for how long.  Without our rule there would be constant seat stealing and chaos.  What were we to do?

. . . . and yet a true creator is necessity, which is the mother of our invention Plato wrote in The Republic.  Plato was a pretty smart guy.

In our case, necessity led to the invention of mongwa.  My brother Jaime its creator.

We slipped that word into the matrix of our family life so smoothly my father didn’t notice at first.  One word is so much shorter, ergo, less noticeable than eight.  By the time he did notice, I think he actually thought it was pretty clever, so the word stayed.  It moved beyond the living room and into the kitchen, the dining room, the porch steps — any situation where there were more people than places to sit.

Decades have rolled by since mongwa entered our lexicon.  Now it’s as much a part of our family as our DNA.  We all still use it, though its necessity is seldom the point.  It’s a secret handshake, a wink, a nod.  An acknowledgement.  We were kids once in a fractious family and we lived to tell the tale.  Most of us.  Two brothers are no longer here.  Still, they were part of it and saying mongwa brings it all back and we are kids again.  We remember.

But every once in awhile it still means the same thing.  I get this seat when I get back.

It’s the rule.

Six of us standing (no need to say mongwa). One sister missing  - she's probably taking the photo.

This was taken about the time mongwa was invented.  Only six of us posing. Our word creator is the last one on the right with blonde wavy hair.  One sister is missing – she’s probably taking the photo.

Filed in: Weekly Writing Challenge: A Manner of Speaking

 

 

A fool and his folly

iconic stonehenge pm smaller

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 foolIt’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 that stands in what used to be a sheep pasture on the farm.  The stones are not as big as they look, not nearly like those at the actual Stonehenge, but they were good enough for dancing around in the moonlight.

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.

Hark, a buzz . . . and then a light

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.

magic ball pm

There are so many things I should have been doing today.  This was too good a challenge to pass up.

The boy who wanted to be a stunt man.

We noticed when he began throwing himself down the stairs.

“What are you doing, trying to kill yourself?”

“No,” he said.  “I’m practicing to be a stunt man.”

Sometimes he’d start at the top of the stairs.  Seized by a heart attack at the age of seven, he’d clutch his chest, crumble to his knees, and then roll – bump, bump, bump – down each step.  Other times he’d start at the bottom and dash up – chased by a knife-wielding or gun-toting villain – only to be stabbed or shot in the back half-way up, whereupon he would crumble to his knees, and then roll – bump, bump, bump – down each step.  Backwards.

When he perfected falling down stairs, he moved on to leaping over trees.  Short trees to be sure, sapling evergreens, but a fair leap for a kid.  Eventually he graduated to flinging himself sling-shot fashion out of bigger trees.

The year my parents took part in a local theater production of Dracula, he pretended to be the lunatic Renfield, and collected flies in a jar.  He went around saying heh heh heh and wringing his hands for a year.

He had a paper route and accidentally set himself on fire.  He graduated high school and started lifting weights.  He grew muscles.  He went to college and studied chemistry.  He thought about becoming a pharmacist.  He got married and had two sons, instead.  When I got married he was best man at my wedding.  He showed up shortly before zero hour in a car with a door that wouldn’t open.

For a while he chased demons.

What happens from there to here?  From boy to man?  From lost to found?  Life.  Life happens.  And we manage somehow to muddle our way through it.

For the love of a good woman (my take on it), he has now found his way to where he needs to be.  He is not a stunt man.  He’s a research scientist/engineer and he would like to go to the moon.  Or at least into outer space.  I think that he is happy now.  Which is the best stunt ever.

He wins.

Boy bundled up & reading on a cold winter afternoon.

Stunt boy bundled up & reading on a cold winter afternoon.

N.B.  I started this as last week’s DPChallenge on Character.  I like stories, and what are stories, but a study of character?