Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Children

The children, the children.  She often heard their cry in the dark of the night. The whimpers. The sobs. The heartbreaking sound. She didn’t think they still would be here so many years after. They hadn’t been there in the beginning but now when her body was tired and old she heard their cry. In her sleep and awake they never left her alone.

In her bed, in the line at the grocery store, at the doctor’s office and  at the library as she tried to pick out a new crime story to read. Their cries, faint, in the background. Everywhere. And no one left to speak to. To ask if this was what happened to them, too. Was this the final payment for the crimes they had committed? But then, back then when the sun was coming down from the clear blue sky, back then it wasn’t a crime. They were heroes. They followed orders. They did the right thing for humankind.

Oh, when her body was young, strong and full of life all those years ago. Now, now she hardly could get up the stairs. And now they came back. The children. Their cries. Sometimes they would cry for their mother or nana or father. But often they simply whimpered. In the beginning it had been hard to listen to those cries but strangely enough you can get used to anything. Even the smell.

People who are barely alive, closer to death and life, develop a certain smell. Eventually, she had learned to recognize how they smelled when they wouldn’t live any longer. Some could look dead but still keep on living. Others could look better and still be closer to death. She had often wondered why some lived longer than others even though they were treated the same. Did some carry a stronger life spark? Or was it good genes? Or simply luck?

She sat up in bed, looked around the dark room. “I know you aren’t here,” she said firmly. As she spoke the whimpers and the cries stopped. She laid down again. Closed her eyes and fell asleep.

She was young in the dream. Her body firm. Straight. Still beautiful. She stood in front of the mirror, caressed the dark blue skirt and the white blouse. Her hair was shiny, light brown and she wore it in a bun on her neck. She touched the ring on her left hand, spun it around and felt the smooth gold under her fingers.

Hans, her love. Suddenly her heart turned tight. She missed him dearly. With her whole body and soul. Missed his smile. His green eyes. The brown, unruly hair that hung down over his forehead. How he used to whisper "Annelies" in her ear and caress her neck with his lips. What if he never came back…no, no she could not think like that. Victory was theirs! The Fuhrer had promised this. And she believed him. He spoke so true. With so much passion. She took a deep breath in. The spring day outside smelled of apple blossom and she heard how the blue tit’s chicks chirruped for their parents to come back to feed them. When this war was over. When victory had come they would have children, Hans and her. Many of them.

Something woke her up, a dull sound from outside the hallway. It sounded like someone was bouncing a ball on the carpet. She listened more carefully but then the sound disappeared. “He,” she said to herself. “Curious…my old ears are playing tricks on me.” Then she heard the sound again. “One of those nights…” she sighed, turned on the lamp on the nightstand and got out of bed. The floor was cold and she searched for her slippers with her feet until she found them. Then she grabbed her old wool cardigan and wrapped it around her body.

The hallway was empty, of course, she lived all alone now. Frank, her last dachshund had died six months ago and now it was no use buying a new one. Who would take care of the dog when she died? It was years ago she had stopped thinking “if I die”. We all die. Eventually.

She slowly walked down the stairs, holding on to the handrail and leaning close to the wall. The light over the kitchen table was always on at night. She stepped into the golden light and felt more at ease.   
The nights she couldn’t sleep she did the same thing.  Toasted a couple of slices of wholegrain bread and made a pot of chamomile tea. She poured the yellow-green liquid into her favorite 1382 Arzberg cup, then added honey and milk. Sat down with the cup and her toast by the table and started to solve crossword puzzles. The one in the Sunday paper she always saved for nights like this. The puzzle was hard enough to keep her mind occupied and eventually sleepiness would win over weariness.

But this night her mind wandered. The dream had brought memories to the surface. Memories of youth. Of Hans. Of Beauty. And of destruction. She sighed and rubbed her face. The dreams she had carried as a young nurse had crumbled when the war ended. Hans came back a different man. He looked the same but he was different on the inside. And she…she sighed again. The years in jail hadn’t been easy for her. She only got ten and was released after seven, she was lucky in many ways or sometimes she let herself think that she hadn’t been as bad as the others. But evil is hard to weigh on a scale. Are you less evil because you obey orders? 

She took a bite of the toast, the plum jam was from last year, this year she hadn’t had the energy to make any. The autumn night was still one uniform darkness outside the kitchen window. In a few hours the young father across the yard would get up to get ready for work. Sometimes she turned off the ceiling light and watched him from her dark kitchen as he poured cereal, ate standing up in front of the TV and then left before the rest of the family had woken up.  

She never had her own children. When she came out of jail in 1953, Hans were nowhere to be found. He hadn’t visited her much in prison and the last few years not at all. The day she was released was a cold but clear March day, she stood with the engagement ring in her hand and decided to not put it on again. She still had some pride left.  No one had paid any attention to her as she walked to the train station and went back home.

Life had somehow turned into a kind of normalcy as she had spent years locked away from reality. To her it seemed as if everybody wanted to forget what had been. Forget the war. Forget the Fuhrer. Forget what they had felt. Move away. Move into the future as fast as possible. Leave it all behind. Her younger sister had gotten married, started a family and wasn’t overly happy to have her staying with her so she moved back to her parents house. It would only be for a while. Only until she had gotten a job. Settled down. Adjusted to this new life. She never left.  

In the beginning they all said, “Find someone new.” “Let him go!” “You will see it will all turn out good in the end.” Sometimes she held the engagement ring in her hand and read the words inside Myn Genyts, My soul. My heart. But she never cried. Jail had snuffed out her tears.

She rubbed her face again and yawned. Maybe she would be able to go to sleep now. She took the last bite of her toast and left the table. In the downstairs hallway she stopped for a moment and looked at the pictures on the wall. Photos of her and Sonja. First as babies, then as school girls and then as teenagers in their BDM uniforms. Her parents had removed the photos but when they died she fished them out of the box in the attic and put them on the wall again. Her sister had protested, her nieces and nephews hadn’t understood. But her grandniece, Sandra had asked questions. Some were uncomfortable to answer and others easy.   

As she stood there she got the sensation she wasn’t alone. Something stroked her leg. Lightly and soft as a cat begging for food. Then she heard the bouncing from the upstairs hallway.

With determination she grabbed the hand rail and started to climb the stairs again. “I am on my way up and I would appreciate if you could show yourself this time.”  The bouncing grew louder for each step.

The girl stood with her back towards her as Annelies arrived at the top step. She wasn’t perfectly solid but not translucent either. She looked like a faded hand colored photo. She bounced the red ball a few times.   Annelies stood still, catching her breath for a moment. The girl stood still, too. “You killed them.” The voice didn’t emanate from the girl, it came from everywhere and still nowhere. Then the crying started again. Not very high, more like a radio you turn on in the background to keep you company.

She recognized the girl. She knew who she was. She had been the doctor’s favorite. Beautiful, slender, strong, bright with black eyes and golden skin. The sun seemed to live under that skin, it glowed by itself. The doctor had given her the red ball and she used to bounce it up and down the hallway in the hospital or outside on the dry, dusty ground. She defended her ball with fierceness and bravery. “Savages,” the guards used to laugh when she fought the other children for the red ball. 

She lived longer than the other children who had arrived at the same time as her. The doctor gave her apples and extra margarine and jam. And he used to ask her to sing. Her voice high and clear. Angel like. Annelies used to think it all was absurd. A game with reality. The child wouldn’t survive no matter what and the doctor knew this. Still he kept the girl as a pet for a whole year.

In the summer of 1944 the camp started to get crowded and more people were sent to the gas chambers. The girl still had her red ball and still got her apples and jam and margarine but the doctor started to grow tired of her. Her skin didn’t glow as the sun anymore. The camp had sucked the essence out of her.

One day he asked one of the guards to take her away. The girl cried, and fought and screamed. Of course she knew what was waiting for her. They all knew.

The next morning another child picked up the ball and played with it. Annelies watched the child as he played and then she walked up to him and took the ball away. “It is not yours!” she had said and for a moment she had felt like the world made sense in all its madness and horrors. She kept the ball through all these years. Last time she had seen the ball, a few summers ago, it had been in its normal place in the trunk in the attic.

Now the girl bounced the ball, then she slowly turned around and looked at Annelies. She was as beautiful as she had been in the beginning.  
“Evil never goes away,” the girl said with her clear voice. “We always remember.”

The darkness behind the girl changed, it trembled, she could feel the trembling under her feet. Then one spot of light appeared, then two, then three, then more than she could count. The lights hovered behind the girl. Pulsated then grew. Each light slowly transformed into a child. Some she recognized, others she had forgotten. 
“You starved us,” a little blonde boy said. He wore a blue shirt and brown shorts. One of his socks had slid down.
“I…I,” Annelies stammered. “I wasn’t in…I didn’t decide how much…”
“Evil never goes away,” the girl said again.

“You drowned them like kittens.” At first she couldn’t see who spoke, then a girl stepped forward holding a baby in her arms. The baby was wrapped in a white and yellow blanket and seemed to be sleeping deeply.
“You don’t understand,” her voice was urgent. “A baby couldn’t survive. We had to…”
The girl with the baby stepped closer to her. She had two long, thick braids and big brown eyes.
“You drowned them like kittens.” The baby in her arms started to move, opened its eyes. The eyes were a newborn’s clear, deep eyes. One day they might have turned brown but now they were blueish green.
“Hold him,” the girl said and reached out with the baby in her arms. Annelies shook her head and took a step backwards, she was very close to the stairs now.  The other children moved closer. “Hold him. Hold him. Hold him,” they all murmured.
“No,” Annelies screamed and shut her eyes. “You don’t exist! Leave me alone!”

 It grew quiet around her. She stood with her eyes closed and listened. She heard how the boiler turned on down in the basement and how the heat moved up the radiators. But she didn’t hear anything else.

She opened her eyes again. The hallway was empty.  She shivered, suddenly cold. Her body was covered in sweat and she was exhausted. Slowly, she walked across to her bedroom, opened her door. The room was peaceful. Her bed looked inviting. She kicked off her slippers and crawled under the blanket. She left the bedside lamp on and closed her eyes again. Sleep would be liberating. As she felt her body grew warm and relaxed she heard the bouncing again. And then children who were laughing.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

On the other side of the tracks

Her eyes he would remember years after, how they could go from sunny and wide to dark and dull in an instant. He never knew when or why this happened but he was smart enough to understand that those dreams she had were connected to her eyes' chameleon qualities.

But that is in the future and this story is about the present. The brilliant, bright, burning present.

“Billy!” his mother’s voice was shrill. “Billy!” He rolled his eyes and yelled: What? “A spider!” His room was hot under the roof but at least he was alone. “Billy!” He sighed loudly and rolled out of bed. His mother stood in the middle of the kitchen floor and pointed to one of the corners. A big black spider clung to the ceiling. “Kill it,” she demanded and gave him the broom.  He swept the ceiling and hoped he would get the spider. If it didn’t die his mother would have him crawl around on the floor and look for it.

In June it had been great to come home from college. See his parents, sleep late, have dinner and hang out with his old friends. Now in August he started to long to go back. He missed the freedom of being away from everybody he knew. In that loneliness he had changed, perhaps it was called finding yourself.

The spider was a mush on the broom when he looked and his mother let out a satisfied sigh. He put the broom in the cabinet. “I’m going out.” His mother got that wrinkle between her eyes. “Will you be back for dinner?” He shrugged. “Probably not,” he said and pulled on his Converse.  “Are you seeing Tess?” His mother’s voice got that tone he didn’t really recognize every time she said Tess’s name. “Mm.” He pushed open the screen door but his mother got hold of his arm. “Is she really good for you?” His mother’s hair was frizzy from the humidity and she had a thousand freckles on her face now in the late summer. “She is older.” He shrugged. “She is…” his mother’s voice faded. He pulled his arm out of her grip and she let him go. “Be careful!” she called after him.

He walked down the street; the day was still hot even though it was after five. Some boys were playing street hockey and had to move when a car turned down the street.  His father was on the train by now coming home from the office. The office, the word made him cringe. He would never be able to put on a suit and sit in an office every day.

At the train tracks the gates were down, for a short moment he hesitated then he bent down and walked under them. The train blared the horn but he didn’t care. On the other side of the tracks the houses started to change. The Cape Cods from the forties disappeared and brick townhouses with stoops lined the wide street. His mother had grown up on this side of the town among first and second generation immigrants from Italy and Eastern Europe. The houses were still impressive but had started to look run down by now. After the riots of the sixties this part of town had never truly recuperated.

She sat on the stoop when he stopped in front of her house. She had a couple of take-out boxes from the Chinese place on the corner next to her and ate from one with a plastic fork. She looked at him as she chewed with her mouth full and when she had swallowed she smiled her crooked smile. “Are you here again?” Before he could answer she spoke. “Did you eat?” He shook his head and walked towards the stoop. “I have fried rice, fried shrimp and noodles.” She pointed to the different containers. “Fork is in the bag.” She pushed the white plastic bag with her foot. He sat down next to her. She smelled sweet, tea with milk in his grandmother’s kitchen in the winter or those pink roses that climbed his grandparent’s house in the summer.

 “How is your father?”, he asked. She made a few incoherent sounds of irritation before she swallowed . “You would think he could have the decency to die before school starts again.” The noodles had small pieces of egg stuck to them; he spun them around his fork and took a bite. Tess put down her box and reached behind her and brought out a bottle of Southern Comfort. She took a swig and gave him the bottle. First sweetness on his tongue then the burn down his throat. He grimaced. “You really have the worst taste in liquor.” She laughed, loud and clear.

The Chinese food was gone and half the bottle, she laid with her head in his lap on the porch swing. He slowly rocked them back and forth. The cicadas filled the evening with their whirring. “I wish I could just leave,” she said and made circles with her finger on his arm. Her touch was comfort and thrill in one. “I wish I wasn’t so good so I could just leave.” She walked her fingers up his arm and down again. “Billy,” she whispered. “Mm,” he whispered back. “Let’s go inside.” Her words rushed in his head, down his spine into his groin.

She slept in the small bedroom downstairs. The room that used to be her younger brother’s. The blonde haired, blue eyed angel who as a three year old had run out the door one day. Straight out in the street and instantly got hit by a car. He died two days later in the hospital. “It never was the same again, she often said with a flat voice. But now the room was hers. Her smell, her things, her persona. She stood in front of him in her blue dress and she pulled it over her head. The skin around her breast shone white in the evening light. The tan line as sharp as a marker line. “Come.” She took his hand in hers and pulled him close. Her skin was so warm, so soft against his. Her arms were around his neck. Her lips on his. She nibbled on his bottom lip. His body reacted immediately. She purred under his touch. Slithered under his tongue. Curved under his weight.  He melted into her, surrendered.

Sleep was about to bring him under when Tess whimpered in her sleep. She laid with her head on his arm and one hand across his chest. Her hand twitched and she whimpered again. Suddenly she sat up and he was wide awake. “Are you ok?” he whispered in the dark. She didn’t respond so he put his hand on her back. Her whole body jerked under his touch and she moved away from his hand. “What is wrong, Tess?” She laid down again, curled up against the wall and seemed to be deep in sleep. Then another whimper, a thin, childlike whimper filled with fear and pain. Then another, and another and she started to breathe fast and shallow. Billy sat up, didn’t know if he should try to comfort. Reached out his hand put pulled it back, afraid he would only make it worse. Make whatever was haunting her more real. The feeling of being inadequate and powerless was a soggy stone in his body as he listened to Tess’s cry filled breaths.

A woman called out a man’s name on the street and Tess stopped hyperventilating. He relaxed an inch.  The woman called out one more time and Tess moved a little, she pushed away from the wall and turned over. He heard how she patted the bed and searched for him. When her hand found his thigh where he was sitting she got up on her elbow. “Why are you sitting there?” she asked sleepy. He took hold of her hand, her palm was sweaty. “I am watching over you.” She sniggered. “What is that supposed to mean?” She moved closer and put her head on his leg. He caressed her bare back. “Don’t you remember?” She yawned widely and moved a little closer. “Remember what?” Her body was so relaxed against his. “You cried,” he said but she didn’t answer. “Maybe it was a dream.” A tension went through her body. “Did I hurt you?” The question surprised him. “No, no not all. You were hyperventilating and I worried about you. I didn’t know what to do.” She laid still on his leg, he could tell how she was thinking. “Sometimes...” she started and then the phone rang. “What the fuck?” She sat up, the phone rang again and again. “Maybe it is the hospital,” he said and she jumped out of bed, ran out and slammed the door behind her.

As he heard her muffled voice he started to get dressed, suddenly his nakedness felt awkward and out of place. As he pulled his t-shirt over his head he heard the door open. Tess stood in the doorway. She had an odd expression on her face. A mix of surprise, sadness and relief. “Was it the hospital?” She nodded and took two steps into the room. Her arms hung by her side and her hair was unruly. “I guess I am supposed to go in, right?” Her voice uncertain. “What happened…did he…” She looked up at him; her eyes were huge, glossy, and empty. “He…his…he…his heart gave up.” Her bottom lip trembled and he put his hand on her shoulder and pulled her close. She sobbed a few times then she grew quiet. “It is ok to cry,” he said into her hair. She smelled of their closeness, their tenderness, their passion. “I know,” she said quietly, then she pulled away from him. “I…I have to go. I am supposed to go.”

He watched as she opened the closet and pulled out a few dresses, she put them on the bed and then she opened her dresser and pulled out tights. “The hospital is so freaking cold,” she said and smiled at him. On top of the tights she put a dark dress with white flowers. She French braided her hair then she sat down on the bed. ” I will take a cab from Main Street.” He nodded. “I don’t know when I will be back...”her words stopped short. “I can come back tomorrow.” She shrugged. “I might need to sleep,” her voice was very soft and polite but he got the message. “Ok,” he said, “I will come back some other day.” She stood up and grabbed her bag. “Good.”

He watched as she walked up the street, she looked very determined as she walked with her back straight and head held high. He wanted to go after her, hold her hand, be with her at the hospital but he had a feeling she wouldn’t want him there. But he stood still and looked after her until he couldn’t see her anymore.

His parents were sleeping when he came home. He went to the bathroom, brushed his teeth, and drank from the tap. When he looked in the mirror he saw long red streaks down his arm from Tess’s nails and for a reason he didn’t even know he started to cry.

Thunder woke him up, the room was shady, his head heavy. He laid and listened to the rain.  It started slow but it soon  pounded the roof. It was past ten in the morning, his father was gone for hours and his mother was working today. He had the house to himself. He rolled to the side, closed his eyes and tried to will himself to fall asleep again. His mind dove down into slumber but was abruptly brought back up when fire trucks came down the street. Not one, but several. The sound stirred something inside of him. Something worrisome. A premonition.

The rain was coming down hard as he ran down the street. Lightning cut across the navy blue clouds. He slipped on the tracks but got up and kept running. The fire trucks, he counted to five, were parked outside Tess’s house. Flames were licking the windows on the top floor. Smoke was rising through the roof. People had gathered on the street, stared, whispered. He tried to run up to the house. What if she was sleeping? A broad shouldered firefighter put a hand to his chest and stopped him. “Can’t go in there, son.” He tried to move past the hand, move past the uniform but no use. “She might be sleeping,” he said and his voice was shaking. “In the small bedroom on the first floor.” The fireman looked down at him with curious eyes. “I had the smoke divers in there already. No one is in the house. Do you know the family?” Billy shook his head. “No, only Tess.” The fireman put his hand on Billy’s shoulder. “She is not in there.”

He backed away from the house, stood by the other spectators, heard the whispers.
“The father is in the hospital”
“I heard he died last night.”
 “Where are the boys?”  
“That girl…”
Billy turned and looked at the woman who said the last thing. She was probably around sixty, her hair in a typical old lady style. Her mouth a disapproving line.
“I know,” the woman next to her said. “Something wrong with that girl.”
A third lady leaned closer. She had straight grey hair in a bob.
“After little Tommy died…and the mother left…not easy for that girl.”
“The mother was crazy too,” the first woman said.
Billy felt the blood pumping. He bit down hard on his teeth. Wanted to yell at the women.  The woman in the bob looked at him. She put her head to the side, squinted a little, pondered.
“You know Tess,” she said and the other two women turned their heads and stared at him.
He nodded. It looked like they were waiting for him to say something. He took a few steps backwards, and then he turned and walked home. He waited that day, and the next, and the next…then school started and eventually he stopped waiting.

One time at Disneyland, many years later. He had his three year old son on his shoulder and he saw this woman with a little girl. They sat on a bench, their heads close together, talking to each other, it was something about the shape of the woman’s shoulders. Or the way she held her head or how the hair hung over the little girl’s forehead. He wasn’t sure but he thought it was her. She must have sensed his eyes because she lifted her head and looked at him. Then she smiled her crooked smile. He wanted to talk to her. Ask how she was. Where she had been. But at that moment his wife called for him and his son pointed in excitement at Mickey Mouse. The next time he looked they were gone. 

Monday, August 10, 2015

Petersburg, Antietam, Chancellorsville

"It was not well to drive men into final corners; at these moments they could all develop teeth and claws."    Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage 

As a boy he had been afraid of the dark. When his mother sent him out to get more firewood he ran across the yard on stumble feet.  Some nights he couldn’t fall asleep until the grey morning arrived. War vanquishes your childhood fears; there is no room for them in war. No real room for any feelings. You wait, you kill, you starve, you scream and then you wait again.

Last night had been cold, nail cracking cold but he had been lucky to find a barn filled with hay. He slept surrounded by summer scent. In the night he dreamt of Elizabeth. She stood before him in her blue dress, her red hair luminous in the sun and bare feet.  “Marcus, my love,” she whispered into his ear. He put his hands around her waist. Followed the curve of her hip, put his mouth on her neck and she craned her neck to give space for his lips. She smelled of vanilla, blood and the Earth herself.  Her strong, willful hands were in his hair. He laid her down on the soft green grass under the oak tree dome.  A blackbird sang somewhere and she lifted her hips to meet him.

In the beginning he often dreamt of her but the dreams had disappeared and eventually he didn’t dream at all. Sleep turned scarce in the same way as food.  If you got any you ravished it too fast to enjoy. But as he had gotten closer to home the dreams had come back. And when the dreams came back his longing woke. His longing pushed him to walk harder for every day.
“Get out of the way old Dan Tucker. You’re too late to git your supper.”  He had hoped to be home by Christmas but that wish had drowned in a hard, long fall rain a couple of weeks ago. The roads had been flooded, mudslides and washed out bridges had forced him to stay put in a town for a week. But now he was close, the campfire song keeping him company.  “Supper’s gone and dinner cookin’. Old Dan Tucker’s just standin’ there lookin’. “

Darkness would soon fill in the spare gaps between the trees. The moon and the new fallen snow would help him along the way. Help him find his way home again. Four years is a long time in any man’s life. Four years at war is longer than anyone can imagine. Four  years when you can’t watch your children grow, four years when you can’t hold your woman, four years when the days are thousand hours each.

The creek was there faster than he remembered, someone had cleared the bushes away so he could see the field where the sun was about to set.  He stopped for a moment and looked at the black water moving in between the snow covered banks. On a spring day twelve years ago he had come walking on the same trail, on his way to his first teaching position.  A girl sat by the creek and washed her muddy feet. As she scrubbed them she muttered something angry. Her cheeks were flushed and her hair unruly. Marcus stood quietly on the trail and watched her. When she stood up and saw him, her blue eyes flashed with fury. “And what are you staring at?” she asked as she wiped her hands on her dress. “Do you need help with something?” he asked.  She huffed as she climbed up the bank. “Have you seen a mare? Black with a white star.” He shook his head. “The stupid horse threw me off.”

As he helped her search for the boisterous mare they talked. About how he would teach her younger sisters in school. That both of them loved Edgar Allan Poe and “The Sketch Book”. She grabbed hold of his arm, dug her nails into his skin and lowered her voice. “We have our own monster. Some say it is a bear. Some say it is a gigantic wolf. Others say it is a man who transforms when the moon is full.” Her burning voice and the hard grip around his arm made him shiver.  “We don’t walk in the woods in the dark. Do you understand?” He nodded and she put her head to the side and looked at him intently. “Your eyes are an impressive shade of brown,” she said and smiled.

A year later they married and when he laid her down in their bed in the small house he was renting he thought about his father’s voice. “Marcus, what is the most important thing about being a man?” His father sat in front of him after he had hit his younger sister. “Being kind and gentle,” Marcus had said and hung his head. Their first child was born a year later and then another boy two years after the first.

The war started and he was spared, he was a teacher, he was a father, he was needed where he was. Justice and fairness were things he had always believed in and eventually he signed up himself. Elizabeth punched him in the chest when he told her. She was pregnant for the third time and had just started to show. “No,” she yelled. “No! No!” Slowly, deliberately, carefully he explained to her.  She punched him again when he stopped speaking. Then she walked out the door into the summer afternoon. He sat on the porch with their boys playing at his feet and waited for her to come back. As the summer sun hung low in the sky and their youngest had fallen asleep in his lap, she came back. He could tell she had been crying.  She grabbed hold of his arm, dug her nails into his skin and lowered her voice.  “I will never forgive you if you don’t come back.”

Now the winter sun was a faint glow behind the tall spruces, the shadows grew and darkness came. For a few moments the dark was opaque. Then the moon rose and the forest turned to silver. The snow crunched under his feet as he rushed down the trail. Suddenly he heard something behind him or were his ears playing tricks on him? He stopped and listened. Something moved in the woods. Something heavy. Branches snapped under ungentle feet. “We don’t walk in the woods in the dark.” Elizabeth’s voice was as clear and close as it had been twelve years ago.
He saw a movement in the moonlight. A black, hunched over shape against the luminous snow. He was so near home. If he closed his eyes he could see the house. Smell Elizabeth’s hair. Hear the boys’ voices. He had never even seen his daughter. And now she was four years old. Red haired like her mother with his brown eyes.

The shape rose and grew taller. Tilted its head backwards and wailed towards the moon. Marcus started to walk. “I will pretend you don’t exist. I will walk here and pretend I didn’t see you. I will go home now.” He tried to proceed in a leisurely way but suddenly his feet got heavy and he stumbled. He heard the creature behind him but he kept moving. “I will pretend you don’t exist.” The sound grew louder; he walked faster and faster until he was running.

He passed the blackberry bushes; his heart was pounding so hard now he didn’t hear anything else.  And then he saw the house. In the kitchen window a candle was burning. He ran a little faster and then he slipped.  Fell head first into the snow, scraped his cheek, bit his lip. Everything was silent for a second or two.  Then he heard heavy, limping feet walking towards him. He closed his eyes. “I will pretend you don’t exist.”

The smell was so strong, of dog and forest and battlefield. Fear and loneliness and pinecones. He kept his eyes shut. The feet limped around him, then they stopped and he could feel warm breath on his face. “I won’t die now,” he said out loud. “I have killed. I have suffered. I have grieved. I have starved. I just want to come home.”

The warm breath grew fainter and the footsteps moved away from him. He opened his eyes, got up on his knees, then his feet and slowly walked towards the house. When he stepped up on the porch the door opened. Elizabeth stood before him. Thinner, older, still the same.  He fell into her arms. He took a deep breath in. She smelled of vanilla, blood and the Earth herself.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Take me to Church

The city who never sleeps was calm this Thanksgiving night. I was leaving Central Park and heading south on Fifth Avenue. The rain had stopped but a thick, low fog made the evening damp and raw. Christmas decorations were already  on display in the windows of the fancy stores; I took a quick glance but knew I had to hurry up. Maaike, my new…hmm I wasn't sure she would approve of the title” girlfriend”, was heading north on Fifth Avenue and we would meet somewhere and walk back to her place downtown.

My grandmother, Annie had insisted on having the whole family over to her grand Upper Westside apartment for Thanksgiving dinner. My mother had tried to talk her out of it but no use. To get the two women to stop arguing over the phone for hours upon hours I had promised to handle the cooking. I was after all living in one of the bedrooms in Annie’s apartment and I was a trained chef. My grandmother had been so pleased, so pleased she sang show tunes for days afterwards.  In the morning when she carefully prepared the breakfast tea she sang “I don’t know how to love him”. As she took her white poodle for a walk in the park she sang: “Officer Krupke”. At night when she took her bath she sang “Maybe”.

A few days before Thanksgiving I went to the supermarket and bought a large turkey, potatoes to mash and some supplies for making gravy.  My mother and my aunts would bring sweet potatoes, creamed spinach, cranberry sauce…yeah, you get the picture. Dinner was supposed to be served at two o’clock to accommodate grandmother’s and great grandchildren’s early bedtimes.
Early on Thanksgiving morning I had woken up in Maaike’s bed. I laid still watching her sleep in the grey light. She slept on her back with her arms over her head, the long dark hair in a braid and her tank top had slid up and showed her stomach. Her skin is the smoothest most beautiful thing in the world. When we first met back in September her skin had been golden brown, now in late November it had faded slightly. Still much darker than mine of course. I blame my Irish grandparents for my pastiness.  I caressed her eyebrows, her cheek and she opened her green eyes. With narrow eyes she put a hand behind my neck and pulled me close. “Mmm,” she purred. “I love how you taste in the morning.”  

This was a perfect moment, this moment in itself was all I wanted but I still couldn't keep myself from thinking about Julia. She had been the reason why I had left the City in the first place. She and some friends had been in the City for a weekend and we had met at Henrietta Hudson. She was a sweet girl, funny and a bit unsure of herself. I fell head first into her forget-me-not eyes and her freckly chest.  She was still in college and I wasn't and as a chef you can get a job anywhere so I left my city. Moved into Julia’s tiny apartment in Virginia.  I was her first and she wanted it all. After about two years she started to talk about children. “Children?” I said. “How would that work? We can’t even get married.” She had it all figured out. “I asked Aaron and he said…” I wasn't particularly fond of Aaron and have him be the father of my child…. To be honest I wasn't sure I even wanted children, not with Julia, not with anyone.

Last June I packed my bags and came back to New York City. The day was hot and unusually humid when I landed at JFK. I took the Long Island Railroad to Penn Station where I caught the 1 train.  The subway was crowded, the streets smelled like garbage and I was sweating profoundly. And I loved it! My grandmother took me in and since then I had worked here and there with this and that.
One September night I met Maaike at my friend Josh’s place. He had a party in the townhouse he shared with his two brothers. She sat cross-legged in the middle of the couch dressed in black tights and a bright pink tunic. I stood in the middle of the floor and looked at her. Until she suddenly turned her head and met my eyes. She didn't smile, just locked her eyes on mine. You know that moment in movies when they slow everything down and they focus on the main characters and you know that a decisive moment is happening. That was exactly how I felt when I stood on the floor with Maaike’s eyes locked with mine.

Some women are naturally more submissive in bed.  Some women are naturally more dominant in bed. I had always been the stronger force when it came to sex.  With Maaike it was different. More of an ebb and flow, push and pull, top and bottom. Sex was more exciting, more equal and therefore better.

And now I was rushing down Fifth Avenue to meet this woman I knew very little about but I desired to no end. I picked up my cellphone to see if she had texted me, she hadn't, and when I tried to get the phone into my pocket again it slipped out of my hand and bounced in the street. Thank God for the Otter Box! As I bent down to pick up my phone I got an uncomfortable feeling in my body. The feeling reminded me of when I was little and I was sure a troll with long skinny fingers lived under my bed. The feeling of being vulnerable and watched by something menacing. Where did this feeling come from I wondered as I straightened up again. I looked behind me. Nothing there. I looked to the other side of the street. A few people were walking there but not one of them seemed to pay me any attention. I started to walk again, trying to shake this uncomfortable feeling out of my body.

Maybe the person had walked in front of me for a long time and I just hadn't noticed but now I saw him or her, I wasn't sure which. This person walked leisurely half a block away, tall, dressed in a long light grey or perhaps beige coat, wavy hair down to the shoulders. I was sure this person was the source of my uncomfortable feeling so I quickly headed over to the east side of the street. I walked slower than before to see if the person would keep walking or also slow down. Slowed down, just like me. I stopped and picked up my phone again to call Maaike, to see where she was. There is always comfort in being two.

Three rings before she picked up, she sounded out of breath. “Where are you?” she asked abruptly. I realized I was outside St. Patrick’s Cathedral. When I told her she demanded that I walked up the steps to see if the door was open. “Why?” I asked. Her response was filled with anger, desperation and pleading. The combination worked wonders on me and I ran up the steps and tried all the doors. “They are all locked.” For a few seconds all I heard was Maaike’s hard breathing. “Stay close to the door. I should be there in two minutes. Don’t go anywhere!” Before I had a chance to answer she hung up.

Two minutes isn't very long. One hundred and twenty seconds. For the first minute thoughts were doing a relay in my head. Most of my thoughts concerned what I actually knew about Maaike. She works for a company that developed software and she traveled a lot to see clients. She can run a mile in less than seven minutes. Her parents moved from Iran to Sweden in the 70’s. When I asked about her parents she always said: Fuck them! When she was eighteen she came to NYC as an au-pair and fell in love with the city and never left. Married an American man to get a Green Card. Then my thoughts froze. The person on the other side of the street. That tall person in the long coat with wavy hair had walked backwards and now stood across Fifth Avenue and looked at me. I pressed my body backwards into the door. My uncomfortable feeling escalated and soughed in my ears.

I felt Maaike’s hand around mine before I fully understood she was there. Her hand was so warm around mine. “Alex,” she said. I tried to pull my eyes away from the person on the other side of the street but I couldn’t. “Alexandra.” No one ever calls me Alexandra anymore, except for my father. I slowly turned my head and looked at her. “We are going in,” she said and pulled on my hand. “But…” Hadn't I already told her the doors were locked? “The doors are locked.” She pulled out a big key from her pocket and put in the keyhole. I stared fascinated. “You have a key?” I know I tend to ask stupid questions when I am under stress. “Evidentially,” she said and dragged me inside. She closed the door behind her and locked it again.

She yanked on my hand and steered me to the left and kept walking until we stopped by The Black Madonna of Czestochowa. I looked up at the scared face; I had always loved this icon the most. She looked so hurt and still so strong.  “Do you know that she stopped the Swedish Army from capturing the monastery during the Second Northern War?” Maaike looked at me and shook her head. “Alex, you are rambling!” I stopped talking. “I want you to stay here until I come back,” she said firmly. She put her hands on my shoulders and pushed me down to sitting. “What are you doing?” She took two steps away from me and blinked hard a few times. “I am going outside for a while.”  I felt like a little girl because the only question I could come up with was; why? She put her hand on my cheek and caressed it and then she turned around and left.

I was never very good in school, not because I wasn't smart, but  I was always absentminded and I didn’t have the drive I guess. But one thing I am good at is figuring things out, putting pieces together, solving riddles and things like that. So Maaike took about ten steps and then I jumped up and ran after her. “Who is that person outside? The tall one on the other side of the street?”  She slowed down. “It is an angel.” I started laughing. “Ha ha very funny!” She didn't look angry or amused. “I will show you,” she said and took my hand again.

We walked back to the door and she ordered me to kneel down and look out the big keyhole. “Do you see it?” I nodded. “I will now put my hand on your neck and I will let you see what I see.” I looked at the tall figure on the other side. Maaike put her warm hand on my neck. Nothing happened at first, then her hand grew heavier and warmer and my vision turned blurry. I blinked to clear my eyes then the blurriness disappeared. The figure on the other side was magnificent. Glowing, winged, a large sword by his side. Maaike’s hand moved and everything turned back to normal. I sank down to the floor, took several deep breaths, and banged my head softly against the door. The sensation was comforting, a reality test.  “How did you do that?”

“I have abilities,” she said and sat down next to me. Abilities? What a no descriptive word, it could mean anything. “What does that even mean?” I asked and looked at her.  “I can do things humans can’t do.” I mulled over her words: I can do things humans can’t do. “You make it sound like you are not human.” I couldn't stop a nervous giggle from coming out. “I am not,” she said with a perfectly normal voice. She might as well have said, “I am born on May 1.” Then I put out a finger and poked her on the arm. “What are you then? Because you seem very human to me.” She stood up and moved a few feet away. “Demon.”

I giggled again. “Angels and Demons,” I said and started to laugh out loud. This was so funny. So ridiculous and funny. She stood still and waited for my laughter to die away. We looked at each other for a long time. “Do your parents know?” She nodded.  “Were you born like that?” She nodded. “Are your parents also…”it felt strange to say the word. Maaike nodded again. I put my forehead on my knees and looked down at the floor. There was a crack in the stone and I followed it with my eyes until I saw Maaike’s feet. She had on her red Dr. Martens. “Are you evil then?” I whispered. “No,” she said. “Don’t be so parochial.”

I sat still with my forehead on my knees for a while, trying to think of something constructive. But it didn't really work so I kept asking.  “Why is there an angel out on the street?”  Maaike sighed and hummed a few times. “The world is divided into sections. Some are for the angels and some are for us. We don’t cross the borders or we are not supposed to. But sometimes we do. And he likes this city and often come here even though he shouldn’t.” I put my chin on my knees and looked at her again. “Do you rule the sections? Or take care of them? Or use them?” She put her thumb in her mouth and chewed on her knuckle, she did that sometimes when she seemed stressed. “Neither.”

She came close to me and sat down. “The world is more complicated than you know. To stop the demons and angels from fighting the world was divided. Not to rule or use or take care of. Simply to keep us apart. But sometimes a certain spot has a pull on one of us and we can’t resist traveling there. I will have to urge him to leave before it escalates into something more…” She stood up again. “I have to go out now.” I nodded. “Please don’t come out.” I nodded again. She unlocked the door, brought the key with her and I heard how she locked it on the outside. I sat and stared at nothing. The hair on my body tingled, stood up by itself on my neck and my head. The feeling was very similar to when I go to the hairdresser and she lifts each strand of hair to cut it.

I realized I was listening for sounds from outside but it was completely quiet. Curiosity overcame me and I got up on my knees and put my eye to the keyhole again.  I saw Maaike and the angel; they stood a few yards away from each other, moving in dance like motions. If I strained my imagination I could picture the angel swinging his sword and I wondered if she had a weapon too that I couldn't see. She was so fast and graceful I got breathless as I watched. There was such power beaming out of her I could almost feel it in my body where I sat.

After about twenty minutes the angel stopped moving, bowed towards Maaike and walked away. He sort of disappeared or vanished might be the better word because he seemed to cease to exist. She stood still for a short moment before she came walking back to me. When she opened the door I heard her panting. “Is he gone?” She nodded and sat down next to me. Her body was boiling and she smelled like she does after she has been out running. Musk and salt in the most exciting combination. “Alex,” she said. And it was something in her voice that made it impossible for me to answer her. “Do you want me to kill you or erase your memory?”

I jumped up and backed away from her. “What?” She didn't look sad or angry or anything. She looked perfectly normal and calm. “You do understand I can’t let you walk away from here remembering this?” I guess I should have understood that, right? “Humans have such a hard time keeping secrets.” She stood up and rubbed her hands together. “I would like to live,” I said very shakily. She nodded. “Will I remember you?” I asked. “I mean will we still be together?” She put her head to the side and smiled. “If you want.” My lips trembled as I said; Yes.

The city who never sleeps was calm this Thanksgiving night. I was leaving Central Park and heading south on Fifth Avenue. The rain had stopped but a thick, low fog made the evening damp and raw. Christmas decorations were already on display in the windows of the fancy stores; I took a quick glance but knew I had to hurry up. Maaike, my new…hmm I wasn't sure she would approve of the title “girlfriend”, was heading north on Fifth Avenue and we would meet somewhere and walk back to her place downtown. I knew I was slightly late, the last hour had passed so quickly.  I had a strange headache and was happy to be out of my grandmother’s apartment. Family can do that to you. 

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Vireo (A Tale of Ice and Oaks)

The maid almost bumped into her where she stood leaning against the wall. “Oh,” the young woman said. “Are you standing here? Aren’t you cold?” Vireo met the girl’s big pale eyes and smiled. Maybe she would bed this girl, simply to annoy the innkeeper, who always looked at her with disgust. “Perhaps you could bring me a cup of that hot wine you serve to keep me warm.”  The maid looked down for a moment and then she met Vireo’s eyes again. “Perhaps I could,” she said and reached out her hand. Vireo dropped a few coins in the outstretched hand and the maid walked back into the warm tavern.

She hated the cold, she hated the snow, and she hated the ice. She hated the bare trees, the frozen ground and the grey skies. Her southern blood wasn’t made for this kind of weather.  Rubbing her hands and banging her feet together didn’t help keep the cold away anymore. Why wasn’t he here yet? How could he be late when he lived the closest? Logically, she would be the one who should be late, she had further to travel. The door to the tavern opened and the maid came out again. Her cheeks were flushed and her hair curly from the moist heat. She held a big metal cup in her hand. The steam from the cup rose in spirals.

Vireo put the cup to her lips and breathed in the smell of the wine, the honey and the spices. The wine would spread its heat in her body, from the bottom of her belly to her toes.  She took a careful sip, so to not burn her tongue. The wine landed in her belly, reached out its tentacles and thawed her blood.  The next time she lifted her head from the cup she saw him.

His dark grey coat dragged along the ground and he limped slightly on his right leg. In company he always told a tale about how he had been injured in a battle but she knew he had fallen off his horse as a boy and a branch had pierced his thigh. The right leg never grew as long as the left.  Sometimes at night he would wake up with pain and she would put her hand over the scar and massage it. As he came closer the Ouroboros tattooed on her back started to burn. “You are my commencement and my conclusion,” he often said to her. She sniggered when he said this and made fun of his schooling in the monastery.  And still during one unbearable separation she had walked to the tattoo master. After hours upon hours she walked out with a pitch-black Ouroboros on her back. 

The young princess and her court in the capital, often spoke of love. Vireo walked a few steps behind, always on guard, but she still heard the words. They spoke of true love. They spoke of how empty it must be to not have love in your life. Sometimes Vireo wanted to tell the young girls to enjoy the freedom of not loving someone. Because if she had known how painful it would be she would have told her heart to not love. Or perhaps it wasn’t the love that hurt but the absence and the longing.  But by now it was all so intertwined she couldn’t separate them anymore.

He was almost by the tavern door when he saw her. For a moment they stood quietly and looked at each other. In the winter evening his blue eyes looked almost green. “You are late,” she said and walked by him and opened the door. They stepped into a wall of sticky, beer smelling warmness. “I know,” he said low, “and for this I apologize, my…” She put up her hand to stop him from talking. “You know how I hate when you call me my lady.” He smiled his crooked Quasimodo smile and said, “Almost as much as when I call you my songbird.” Vireo huffed discontent. “I have told you my mother and father did what they thought best.”  Her parents, the gentle fruit farmers, who named all their children after birds. How could they have known their songbird daughter with the peppercorn eyes actually was a warrior?

“Andreas!” The innkeeper came wobbling over to them. He didn’t look at her but greeted Andreas with great enthusiasm. “How are you? Oh, this weather! When will spring come?” She had never truly understood the relationship between the two men. But there was deep trust and affection between them. And this was the only place they dared to meet.  “Your room is ready for you. Will you dine first?”

Andreas looked over at her and she shook her head. “No,” he said to the innkeeper, “a tray will make do.” The plump man nodded eagerly and snapped his fingers. Another maid showed up and he gave her orders to bring a tray to their room.

In the far end of their room a fire was set in the hearth. She took off her wool mantel and dropped it on the chair, pulled off her gloves and shoes and walked up to the fire.  She unbuckled her sword and sat down and held her hands and feet as close to the flames as she dared. She heard Andreas move around behind her, then his presence came closer to her. The Ouroboros on her back burned.  He put a hand on her shoulder. “How have you been?” he asked kindly.

How do you survive months without the one you love? She did what the snakes do. She let her heartrate go down and all her feelings went into hibernation, until anger was the only thing left. “I can’t,” she said and pushed away his hand. “I know,” he said and stood up. The sound of metal against leather was unmistakable to her. He had pulled his sword. Fast as the bird she was named after, she got to her feet with sword in hand.

He was only about five inches taller than her but of course stronger compared to her slender build. But what he had in strength she had in agility. Their sword skills and character were even. Perhaps the years he had on her had softened his temper slightly.

“How is the Capital?” he asked and swung at her. She blocked his attempt and moved a few feet away.
“Beautiful and shallow as usual.” She lunged forward and hit him hard on the shoulder with the flat side of her sword. “And warmer than this goddess forsaken place.”
Andreas laughed but she could see in his eyes that he was in full battle mode. “If you would rather we wait until spring…” He stopped talking and swung forcefully at her. She felt the impact on her sword all the way up in her shoulders. Wait until spring…The words aggravated her. Speed was her friend and she moved to his side and before he could react she had hit him a few times on his back and was able to slap him with her hand on the top of his head. She moved to the other side of the room and stared at him.

“Wait until spring…so you have more time up there in that fortress with the prince and his maids.” She didn’t like the tone of her own voice but it was too late now, the words had already been spoken.  True anger flashed across his face and when he spoke his voice was a deep growl. “You know.” He moved closer to her with his sword ready. “You know!” The blows were harder than before and she had to back away from him. Soon the room ended and she stood with her back against the wall. He glared at her. “You know. Besides I am not the one who…” A knock on the door made him move his head to the side and she bent down away from him and dashed to the other side of the room.  Andreas opened the door and let the maid in. The young woman carried a tray and looked at them with prying eyes.  She put the tray on the table and left.

Vireo walked up to the table and grabbed one of the mugs with mead. This inn was famous for their mead; it was sweet and fragrant and had a dark purple hue from the blackberries that grew all over the hills and cliffs. Andreas still stood by the other wall and then slowly he walked up to the table and grabbed a mug himself.

To be chosen to be the part of the Royal Guard was an honor bestowed on few. Only the most skillful and trusted sword wielders were picked.  After days of trials and combat she had been chosen to protect the young princess Lavender. And the first day when she watched over the girl in the Royal Oak grove she had met Andreas. He had been guarding the teenage prince for five of his commissioned fifteen years. Slowly a warm friendship grew between them, both of them careful, a Royal Guard is forbidden to love or marry. A Royal Guard’s loyalty solely belongs to the Crown. For fifteen years they had promised, signed in blood to be faithful to the Crown.

There was something with this friendship they cultivated. An amber. Every time she saw Andreas this amber flickered to life. One early summer day, the oak trees carried bright green leaves and the sky was lustrous blue, she was off duty and laid on her back in the grass in the Royal Oak grove. A vireo sat on a branch above her head and sang. She was about to doze off when she felt footsteps transmit through her body. Irregular and calm. She opened her eyes and sat up; Andreas stood next to her and smiled. She got up on her feet and leaned against the oak. “Where is the prince?” He stepped closer to her. “I have been on duty for three weeks. The king told me to…” Andreas laughed. “He actually said ‘get drunk and laid.’   Vireo looked down at her bare feet for moment then she lifted her head and met Andreas’ eyes. “The drunk part I can’t help you with.” She could tell how he didn’t understand at first, and then the realization sunk in.

She had kissed plenty of women and men but this was different. This kiss was mead and chocolate. This kiss was thunder and rain. This kiss was her mother’s caress and the ground under her feet. This kiss was sun on her skin and fire in her groin. And now five years later this was still different.

She put the mug back on the table and waited for him to do the same. Then both of them picked up their swords again and continued to fight around the room.  How do you rekindle love? First she had to break through the anger that lay around her heart. A steel armor to protect her from the sorrow of being apart. With every blow and lunge. With every hit and swing. They chipped away. Eventually they stood panting, sweat pouring down their backs, bruised and sore.

Andreas left the room and Vireo grabbed the mug with mead again. She took several deep gulps then she cut herself a piece of cheese and some smoked sausage. Her body ached but her heart was alive.

Andreas came back followed by two young men who carried a big wooden tub. They placed it in the middle of the floor and filled it with warm water. When they left Vireo got undressed and stepped in. Slowly she lowered her body into the water. “Are you coming?” she asked, feeling close to shy for a moment. He got undressed and stepped into the water with his back towards her. They always did the same thing. A ritual to find their way back to each other. She took the brush and the soap, rubbed them together until she had a thick lather. Started to work on his shoulders. Scrubbed them, felt his skin under her fingers, smooth and slippery. He sighed as she scrubbed her way across his back with the brush. When his whole back was clean she rinsed him off with her hands. Moved close to his body, put her arms around his neck, her head on his shoulder. Whispered into his ear. “I hate you!” The words said one thing, her voice another.

Sunday, December 21, 2014



“The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.”
                                                                                                Isaiah 9:2 King James Bible

You hear those stories about people in prisons. If you are an abuser, hurt kids or treated women badly you might end up dead. If this was what had happened to Dylan’s father no one knew. One morning he was dead. Lay still and cold in his cell. They didn’t mourn much, Dylan and his mother. Perhaps the level of mourning corresponds to the level of love.  Dylan had loved his father with all his might as children tend to do until one day his love had burst and disappeared. He didn’t miss loving his father; on the contrary not loving him was a relief.  Without the love he didn’t have to ask himself the question why. Why does daddy hurt me? Why does daddy hit mommy? Why isn’t my love enough to stop him?

The clock on the kitchen wall chimed four times and soon after the phone rang. Dylan got up from the table and answered. His mother’s voice was a little rushed as she explained she was running late and wouldn’t be home until six. But if he met her by the bus stop they could go to the diner and have pancakes for dinner.

As he sat down by the kitchen table again and opened his math book something caught his eye, a shadow of sort moved outside the window. Black and quick. The shadow was gone for a couple of seconds and then it came back again. Stopped outside the window and took the shape of a cat. Dylan got up from his chair and walked over to the window and opened. The cat looked at him with yellow eyes and then jumped down on the floor. She slithered around his legs meowing loudly.
“Yes, yes I will give you food.” He grabbed the box of Friskies and the cat ran straight up to her bowl. She started purring as he poured the little brown and red pellets into her bowl. He sat down on the floor next to her and watched her eat. She picked up the pellets delicately and then crunched them violently in between her sharp teeth.  When she was done eating she climbed up into his lap and curled up. He caressed her back, felt the thin spine under his fingers, the gleaming black fur. She closed her eyes and purred into his solar plexus.

  The nightmares had started the day his father died.  Every night the same. He was unable to turn his head but he sensed, saw black shadows filling the air behind his back. Coming closer and closer. He struggled to free himself from this feeling of helplessness. He desperately wanted to defend himself.  But no use, he could not turn around. And then he woke up.  Always sweating and shaking. His mother had bought the cat to keep him company at night. Her warm body and purring in the dark was a great comfort. For a while the dreams diminished but last week they had returned. He had overheard his mother on the phone talking about the stress of the holidays and the stress of school. Her voice had turned fuzzy around the edges when she spoke and he knew she was worried about him. The last thing he wanted was to worry his mother.

He didn’t feel stressed; actually he didn’t feel much at all. He had lived in a comfortable numbness for a few years. Except for in his dreams. The fear in his dreams was stronger and more real than anything he had ever experienced.

He had picked out a book at the library about dreams. Sat by one of the small tables and read a whole chapter about shadows. He didn’t understand a great deal and had ended up asking the librarian. An old woman in a pilly sweater who smelled of coffee and cigarettes. She hummed a few times as she read and then lifted her head and looked at him intently.
“The shadow is an image for something inside of you that you don’t want to see or believe that you feel. Or a trait.”
He had shaken his head so she continued.
“For example…” She was quiet for a few seconds. “Let’s say you are the grandchild of a Nazi. You know who the Nazis were?” He nodded as they had just started talking about World War II in school.
“So you are the grandchild of a Nazi and you think what your grandfather did was horrible. And you always say you don’t understand how he could kill all those people. But maybe deep down you know that you could do that too because…” Her voice faded.
Dylan stood still and waited. She looked above his head, her eyes grew cloudy.
“We are all mosaics. Pieces put together. Genes…personality traits…our history. Some pieces we are proud of and others we don’t want to know about. The shadows are those pieces we don’t want to know and they come into our dreams to show us something.”

The clock on the kitchen wall chimed five times. Darkness had fallen outside the window.  The cat was sound asleep in his lap, he carefully stood up not to awaken her. He walked with her in his arms to the couch and placed her in the corner where she liked to sleep. She moved a few times before she settled back into deep sleep. The Christmas tree filled the room with a multicolored glow. I wonder if she would die if I grabbed her by the neck and threw her into the wall. The thought was clear and protruding.

Two steps and he were right next to the couch, hunched over the sleeping cat. As if she had sensed his presence, she started to purr. “Stupid animal,” he whispered and the words tasted briny in his mouth. Strong and salty. “Stupid animal.” His heart was beating fiercely, the blood one thousand degrees in his veins. The skin on his back was tingling and he opened and closed his fist.  The muscles in his arms tensed up and he could feel more than envision how he picked up the cat and threw her in the wall. He could hear more than imagine when her body hit the hard wall. It would be a loud thud; maybe she would cry out and then fall lifeless to the floor.

A fire truck went by on the street. The noise and lights brought him back. He looked down at the sleeping cat. He was sweating on his back and breathing shallow, she was still purring.

The outside air was cold and raw, just below freezing and snow mud stripes on the street. He walked with his hands in his coat pockets. He had rushed out of the apartment forgetting his gloves. The sweat on his back had turned cold and sticky and he was shaking. His body felt the same way as after he had competed in track in the summer. The only difference was that now his mind was not triumphant, no his mind was shivery. Fever chills. I am no different. I am no different. I am no different.

The bus stop was deserted. He looked over at the church across the street, only a quarter to six. If he was lucky the bus would be on time, most of the time it was at least five or ten minutes late. But he did not want to go back to the apartment by himself. He sat down on the bench for a few minutes but it was too cold to sit still. He started to walk up and down the sidewalk. Counted the Christmas lights that were strung across the street in between the light posts. Each strand had 52 lights with a big star hanging in the middle.

When the church bell tolled six he stayed put at the bus stop, leaned against the fence and waited. Next to him was an icicle attached to the fence post.  It started on the top of the fence and reached several feet. The ice was so clear and clean, he touched it with his finger then he stuck out his tongue. The cold was piercing and he knew he was stuck before he had started to pull. Don’t put your tongue on ice. Don’t put your tongue on ice. His father had said this more times than he could remember and still now he was stuck. He tried to direct his breath so it would melt the ice. No use. He tried to create saliva to drizzle down his tongue. No use.

His mother would be there soon, she could help him. Suddenly he heard a loud boom and the first thought that came to his mind was that the church door across the street had slammed closed. He tried to look out of the corner of his eye. At first he didn't see anything,  then he saw them. The black shadows. They moved fast behind his back, only a few at first then more. He tried to turn around but his head was stuck. And the sound, a swooshing in the air. More, more. Closer, closer. He pulled on his tongue. The pain was burning. The shadows grew closer, pressed against his body. The cold disappeared.  He was consumed in darkness.  I am no different.

“Dylan?” His mother’s voice was so distant.  A hand on his shoulder then he tasted tea. Lukewarm Earl Grey with milk. His mother often bought a cup to bring on the bus. She had told him the cup of tea made the bus ride less tedious and sometimes she imagined she was in London instead of their own town.  She turned him around, everything was still dark. “Dylan, open your eyes.” He opened one eye; his mother’s face was blurry. He opened the other eye and blinked a few times. Her face became clear. Her brown eyes looked worried as she kneeled in front of him. “What happened?” He swallowed; he could taste the tea in his throat. “I got stuck,” he said and felt foolish. He had acted like a baby. His mother caressed his cheek. “Should we go and have dinner?”

The diner was warm and crowded. “A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.” His mother sang along to Holy Night. “Mom?” She lifted her head and moved her eyes to his face. “It was just like in my dream.” She looked confused. “I was stuck and the shadows came and it all turned dark.” She put her head to the side and squinted. “You had your eyes closed.” Dylan looked down; someone had carved in the letters KNM on the table top.  He touched the letters and felt the indent with his finger. “Will I be like him?” His mother was quiet; she drank some water before she put her hand over his. “We all have choices. We can be whoever we want.” The pancakes arrived on the table and Dylan grabbed the syrup. “But what if I have it in me?” His mother cut her pancakes in small squares. Ate a couple. “Your father could be the gentlest most loving man. And then he could be the cruelest. He could have chosen differently but he didn’t.” 

Dylan got syrup on his fingers and licked it off. “But how will I know that I will…that I won’t be like him?” His mother looked out the window for a long time. “I guess you won’t. But at least you are aware of the possibility.” She stopped talking, grabbed the syrup and dribbled it over her pancakes.  “No one is completely good. No one only has light. We all have darkness inside. But depending on what we feed…” She stopped talking again. Dylan looked out the window, looked over at the bus stop. His mother had said he had his eyes closed but the shadows were still there, slithering, dark coils. Snakes, lifting their heads, looking for prey.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The house on the hill

Once upon a time on a grassy hill stood a yellow wood house surrounded by mighty maples. In the spring the trees gave the children Polly noses to play with.  In the summer the trees turned the warm days comfortable shady.  In the fall the children watched  ruby, amber and gold leaves as they floated through the air. In late winter metal buckets got hung and the trees tapped for syrup to pour over pancakes on Sunday morning.

In the house lived a woman and a man. She sang as she scrubbed the smooth pine floors with sand and soap. She sang as she kneaded the dough. She sang as she milked the four brown and white cows in the barn. She sang when she sat on the porch and cleaned the vegetables. She sang as she washed her man’s back in the bath on Saturday night when he had come home from the factory on his bike. And she sang to her children. Sang tears away. Sang fights away. Sang them to sleep.

The children, three brown eyed like their father and two blue eyed as their mother. Annemarie, Greta and Lillian lived in the room up under the roof.  One year apart, curly haired, their father’s princesses. He had taken the bike to town and picked out the pale pink paint for the walls. The boys still small, slept together in the pull out bed in the kitchen. Over their bed hung a mobile. Closest to the ceiling the bright sun, then the birds, the animals and only a few feet from their faces green striped fish.

 At night the man listened to the radio in the kitchen. Heard voices and words.
 That sometimes filled him with joy. “And it is a homerun.”
Sometimes with worry. “The draught is now widespread. We desperately need some rain.”
 Sometimes with fear. “Today we have declared war…”
The family was a lucky family. The children grew, the rains came. No one was drafted to a war far away. And under the mighty maples many homeruns ended in cheers.

The house was a proud house. In the winter its walls protected the woman, the man and the children from the fierce cold and never did its roof leak.  It might need a nail at times or some oil on a creaking door but it was a sturdy good house. In warmer days the wind moved through the open windows and filled its inside with pride.

 And the house was a happy house because inside its walls the fights were short; even though they were intense at times they all ended with laughter and hugs. At night it listened to bedtime stories and then the children’s content sleeping sighs. The walls picked up the tender words the man and woman murmured as they lay in each other arms.

The house watched the children grow. The three girls moved in unison. A hurricane of dark curly hair and screaming laughter.  The boys blonde and calm followed their mother’s footstep, down to the barn, out in the woods, back to the kitchen.

The house watched the limbs grow longer and slimmer. Watched the falls, the scrapes and the bumps. Ached with the woman and man when the children feel ill. Huddled over them.  One by one the house watched the children leave. And then return with husbands and wives. Watch the man and the woman walk in the empty house. Unsure at first in the silence and the empty rooms but then relish the two.

The house was there when the first grandchild was brought home. The man swell with pride and the woman cradle the baby in her arms. Hushing and singing the new brown eyed baby to sleep.  Once again the house would be filled at times with running feet, loud laughter and bedtime stories.
One of the first frost nights one autumn, the house saw Death approach. He walked up the hill and entered through the unlocked kitchen door. Death sat by the bedside and watched the man and the woman sleep deeply. Saw the white hair, the wrinkles and the intertwined hands. This night he had come for the man. Death never regrets taking a life. No one ever asks the sun if she regrets setting or rising every day.

The woman mourned the way you mourn after a long, happy life together; absentmindedly. She still talked to the man. She still made the bed for two. She still looked out the window at a quarter to five to see if he possible was coming up the hill with his bike. She didn't cry much. Perhaps she knew she wouldn't be too long. A warm summer afternoon she sat on the porch with the cat in her lap when Death came. Scared the cat jumped down and ran to hide but the woman took Death’s hand and gladly left with him.

The house was now empty for the first time since it was built. An unusual feeling for the house.  A For Sale sign was put up down by the road. People came and went. Opened doors. Slammed cabinets. Poked walls. The house waited.

One day a moving truck drove up the hill. A man, a woman, a little girl and two cats. The little girl ran up to the pink room under the roof and opened the window. Then ran down again. The house cherished her footsteps.