Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Cardboard Christmas


The Ice Cutters, 1911, Natalia Goncharova




Lisa reached into the back corner of the closet. She stood on her toes and tugged with her fingers, and finally the box came free. She carefully pulled it out and stepped down from the chair. The last box. She hoped it was the one she wanted.
As she set it next to the other boxes on the floor, Lisa heard little feet coming down the hall. Was naptime over already?
Mommy, I waked up,” Josh announced. “What’s in the boxes?”
Caleb followed his brother on loyal little legs. “Peasants?” he suggested hopefully.
No, not presents. Just some things we haven’t unpacked yet.”
Josh peered into one box and pulled out a tiny sweater. “Whose is this?”
You used to wear that when you were a baby. And so did Caleb. Put it back, please.”
Caleb toddled over to Lisa and patted her belly. “Baby.”
Yes, the new baby will wear it, too. But not for a while.”
Josh was already investigating the clothes in another box. “Did I wear these?”
Yes, but–”
Caleb pulled a skirt out of a third box, and knitted his blond brows together. “I wear this?”
No, that’s mine.”
Mommy was baby?”
Mommy wore that before you were a baby, and hopes she’ll be able to wear it again someday.” Lisa sighed, and refolded the skirt. “Anyway, I’m not looking for clothes right now. I’m–no, don’t touch that one!”
Lisa swung Caleb away from the box containing the equipment and remnants from her stained glass class. Someday she’d get back to that again, too, but it was not a safe hobby to practice with toddlers in the house.
What are you looking for?” Josh asked.
Christmas ornaments.”
Kiss-miss?” Caleb repeated.
Yes. I’ve looked through all the boxes but this one. Shall we see what’s inside?” Lisa picked up her scissors and slit the tape. Her heart thumped with anticipation. The bright colors, the familiar shapes, must be right there beneath her fingers. She opened the flaps.
Papers. Kevin’s college notes. No wonder the box was so heavy.
The little boys looked inside. “No Kiss-miss?” Caleb stuck out his lower lip.
Lisa sank to the floor. “No. The movers must have left my box of ornaments in Grandma’s garage.” She wiped a tear from her eye.
Josh wrapped his arms around her shoulders. “It’s okay, Mommy. Come on, Caleb. Let’s play trains.”
Choo-choo!” Caleb hooted as the boys pattered back to their room.
Lisa knew she should put away the boxes and prepare the room for guests. But she felt drained after her fruitless search. She went downstairs for a glass of water, hoping Kevin would be home soon to help with the lifting.
She looked around the small living room. It was comfortable, but not very festive. She had hoped to be all ready for Christmas before Kevin’s parents came to visit. She’d bought the groceries and done most of the cleaning. But Kevin had been working late, training for his new job. He was too tired to decorate when he came home. They had not even bought a tree.
Lisa brightened. Maybe Kevin’s parents could find the box of ornaments and bring it along tomorrow. She gave them a call.
No answer. They must be still at work. Lisa left a message, and hung up with a little more hope.

It had been a blessing to live with Kevin’s folks, Dale and Donna. They had invited the young family to stay after Kevin graduated, just until he found a good job. The few weeks he expected had turned into two years, though, as Kevin applied for position after position. He worked some odd jobs during that time, and played with the little boys, but he’d spent more and more time grumbling about the economy and playing video games. Lisa was grateful that they’d had a comfortable place to live all that time. They’d never gone hungry. But she knew her husband hated depending on his parents.
Everyone was thrilled when Kevin was hired. Lisa loved the fresh sparkle in his eye, his new sense of purpose and responsibility. She also looked forward to setting up their own home, having their own space, and starting their own traditions.
As the moving van rolled away, scattering the fallen leaves, Donna pulled Kevin into a tight squeeze. “We’ll miss you so much, but we’re so proud of you.”
That’s right.” Dale gave Josh a tickle before buckling him into his car seat. “But you’ll be back for Christmas, won’t you?”
Lisa looked at Kevin with concern. His parents’ Christmas celebrations were too glitzy for her taste.
I won't earn much leave by then,” Kevin said. “We’ll probably be staying in our new home.”
Lisa breathed a small sigh of relief as she buckled her own safety belt.
Then we’ll come visit you,” Dale declared.
You bet,” Donna agreed. “It wouldn’t be Christmas without a child in the house!”
Kevin waved as he drove the car away, but Lisa felt frozen.

She’d had some time to thaw over the past couple of months, and had determined to show her in-laws a Christmas her way. A nice dinner on Christmas day, not a Christmas Eve extravaganza. Homemade cookies. Singing carols around the–well, someday she’d get a piano. Singing carols around the CD player, then. And a real tree. A small one, to be sure. Expense and living room space dictated that. But she looked forward to arranging her small collection of ornaments on a sweet-smelling fresh tree. Lisa closed her eyes, imagining the aroma.
Behold the conquering hero!”
Lisa’s eyes flew open as the front door slammed. Little feet pounded down the stairs, and cries of “Daddy!” filled the air. Lisa struggled up from the couch.
Kevin swung the two boys into the living room, then caught Lisa in a hug. “I’ve completed my certification. I'll meet my first client after Christmas!”
Lisa gave him a kiss. “That’s wonderful, dear,” she said. “Oh, look at the time. I haven’t started dinner yet.”
No big deal,” Kevin said. “Let’s pick something up on the way.”
On the way to where?” Josh asked.
To buy a Christmas tree.”
Lisa and the boys cheered, and the family piled into the car. After supplying everyone with hamburgers and fries, Kevin drove straight to the tree stand in the mall’s parking lot. The brightly colored lights turned off as they approached. Kevin stepped out to talk to a man who was sweeping pine needles.
All sold out, sir,” Lisa heard him say. “They went fast this year. You could try the supermarket, or the lot on Old Holly Road.”
There were no trees left at the supermarket, either. Lisa and Kevin had different ideas about how to find Old Holly Road, and it took them a while to reach it. When they finally found the tree lot there, it was empty, too.
Maybe this is why Mom and Dad use a fake tree,” Kevin said, leaning on the steering wheel. “Is it normal to run out the day before Christmas Eve?”
I don’t think so,” Lisa answered. “Where I grew up, most lots had a few scraggly trees left even after Christmas.”
Huh. Well, we’d better take the kiddos home.” Kevin nodded at the boys. They were asleep in their car seats, and Caleb was losing his grip on a handful of fries.

After helping Lisa set up the guest room, Kevin spent most of Christmas Eve shopping. Lisa wondered if he would come home with a fake tree. If he did, she’d be stuck with it, probably forever. Ugh. But having no Christmas tree would be worse.
She tried not to think about it as she rolled out sugar cookie dough. She helped Caleb wield a star-shaped cookie cutter with his pudgy fingers. Josh cut out a cookie and held it up. “Is this what our tree will look like?” he asked. He wiggled the tree shape until it broke and fell to the counter, leaving just the point in his hand.
Probably so.” Lisa squished the dough together and rolled it out so Josh could try again.
Will we put up a 'table?” he asked.
This is the table.”
No, a Christmas 'table.”
Lisa frowned, trying to read Josh's mind. “Oh.” She remembered that Dale built an elaborate train set on the coffee table each Christmas. “You mean like Grandpa's? We don't have anything like that.”
"Why not?"
Lisa slid the cookie sheet into the oven, and the front door opened.
Don’t look,” Kevin called, sweeping past with something held behind his back.
Josh covered his eyes with his hands. Caleb put his hands on his own face, but missed one eye.
Did you bring a tree, Daddy?” Josh shouted.
Kevin looked around the corner. “No, but I have an idea. Come here, kiddos.” They followed him to the living room, and he shut the kitchen door.

Lisa finished baking the cookies and started some soup for dinner. A pair of headlights swept up the driveway as she stirred. Donna's sweater sparkled as she came through the door. “Merry Christmas Eve, Lisa, honey,” she said with her usual broad smile.
Dale followed her inside, carrying a box. “We couldn’t find your box, Lisa, but we thought you might like these.” He set the box on the table.
Lisa’s face fell as she looked inside. Instead of the treasures her own grandparents had sent each year, or the cute ornaments her crafty aunts had made, there were packages of silver bells, violet balls, strings of blue lights, and a huge silver star. They had never been opened.
We can’t use these.”
Sure, you can! We bought them all on clearance last January,” Donna said with a wink.
But we don’t have a tree.”
The kitchen door opened. “Yes, we do,” said Kevin. “Come see.”
The little boys rushed at their grandparents, who paused for hugs and tickles. Kevin took Lisa by the hand and led her to the living room. On the floor she saw that a large moving box had been cut in the shape of a fir tree. The boys had obviously been coloring it, with large swathes of green ink and little patches of green crayon.
Tears came to Lisa’s eyes. Kevin put his arm around her. “It doesn't smell great, but I think we can have some fun with it. Okay?”
Lisa wiped her eyes and smiled. “I’ll go find the construction paper.”

After supper, Kevin led the way to the living room, flexing his muscles. “So, I cut this tree myself, and hauled it all the way from the shed with my bare hands. Let's dress it up.”
Dale frowned. “That's not a tree. That's a tree by-product.”
Start producing some decorations for it, then.”
Dale chuckled. “I'm no artist. You kids go ahead without me.”
I'll help you.” Josh handed his grandfather a piece of orange paper. “Draw around my hand, Grandpa.”
Me, too,” insisted Caleb, and the decorating began.
           Donna snipped lacy snowflakes to tape to the cardboard tree. Lisa tied yarn into bows. The boys colored their handprints, then drew stars, train engines, and more abstract shapes.
           Dale traced his own hand, colored it like a turkey, and cut it out, too. “I call it, 'Self-Portrait,'” he said, taping it onto the tree.
           Donna rolled her eyes. “That's you, all right. Full of stuffing and nonsense.”
           Kevin searched the Internet for origami instructions, and busied himself with sheets of aluminum foil. He showed Lisa his creations.
           “Christmas cranes?” she asked.
           He grinned. “Silver swans a-swimming.”
           Soon the flat tree was covered with colorful, fanciful, utterly original decorations.
           “This certainly is unique,” Donna said, surveying their work. “I'll never forget this little tree.”
           “Neither will I,” Lisa agreed. “But how will it stand up?”
           “Got it covered,” said Kevin. “Make me another big bow, will you?” He looped some yellow yarn through a hole near the point of the tree. After attaching Lisa's bow, he hung the loop on a hook in the ceiling. The cardboard tree dangled, swinging slightly in the breeze from the heating vent.
           “Pity,” said Caleb.
           “Yes, it's a very pretty Christmas tree,” Lisa said, hugging her sons, “though I feel like I've forgotten to do something.” She yawned.
           “What about a 'table?” Josh asked.
           “Not now, Josh.”
           “The tree is just fine this way,” Kevin declared, “and you're tired. Go ahead and get the boys into their pajamas. I'll take care of the dishes.”

           Lisa woke with a start. “Did you hear that?” Kevin did not respond. How could he not hear it? Lisa shook his shoulder. “Kevin, what's that sound?”
           He rolled over and grunted at the darkness. “Huh?”
           “That rustling sound. Listen.” Lisa sat up, heart pounding. “There's a light on, too.”
           Kevin raised himself up on one elbow. “I doubt our presents would attract burglars,” he said.
        “Well, probably not.” The gifts they had set out, after tucking the boys in, made a pretty meager pile.
           “I bet it's Mom and Dad, sneaking some more packages downstairs. Go back to sleep.” He rolled over again.
           Lisa lay down, breathing deeply, willing her heart to stop racing.

           She woke again to the sound of giggling. Weak sunlight glowed around the edges of the window blinds.
           Kevin sat up. “It must be Christmas morning,” he said, grinning.
           Lisa pulled on her robe and headed for the boys' room. “I wish your dad wouldn't tickle the boys awake.”
           “He was already awake, weren't you, little man?” Dale laughed along with the toddler.
           “Merry Kiss-miss, Mommy!” Caleb called when he caught his breath.
           “Merry Christmas, sweetie. But where's Josh?”
           “I dunno.” Caleb collapsed in a fresh round of giggles.
           Lisa walked down the hall to the guest room. “Josh, are you bothering Grandma?”
           Donna put down her magazine. “He's no bother, but he isn't in here.”
           Lisa grabbed handfuls of her own hair. “Where's Josh?”
           Kevin looked out of the boys' room, surprised. “What do you mean?”
           “He isn't there, he isn't here.” Frantic, she hugged herself. “I heard noises last night. Maybe someone took him!”
           Kevin put one hand on Lisa's shoulder, and smoothed her hair with the other. “Calm down, Lisa. He's probably getting a head start on the presents. Let's take a look downstairs.”
           Caleb and his grandparents followed silently as Kevin led Lisa down the stairs. At the bottom, she closed her eyes, afraid of what she might see. Kevin stepped out into the living room.
           Soon he returned and took Lisa's hand. “Come and see,” he said quietly. Lisa let out the breath she was holding, and followed him.
           The gifts had not been disturbed, but there was a mess beneath the dangling cardboard tree. Josh lay curled there in a nest of crayons. Lisa dropped to his side, giving his round cheek a grateful kiss. Josh's blue eyes opened in the pale morning light.
           “What are you doing down here?” she asked. “You gave me such a fright.”
           Josh looked surprised. “Sorry, Mommy. In the night I waked up, and I made the 'table you forgot. Look.” He pointed to a folded piece of cardboard, standing near the trunk of the swinging tree. Lisa picked it up.
           Brown crayon marked walls and a roof. A yellow star with eight or nine points shone at the top. Smiles split the round faces of three figures within—one wearing blue, with long hair, one with a pointy brown beard, and a small one between them, balanced on an X. Curly-hided animals stood nearby, smiling, too.
           “The stable. You're right, that's just what we need.” Lisa wiped her eyes.
           Caleb knelt down next to her, and pointed reverently to the central figure in the drawing. “Baby.”

           Lisa sat on the couch, sipping hot chocolate. She watched as Dale chased Josh through a tunnel of empty moving boxes. She leaned her head on her husband's shoulder. “The boxes were a great idea, dear.”
           Kevin grinned. Dale poked his head through a window in one box. “They're just like you. No matter what we gave you, you'd just play with the boxes.” Then he roared, and crawled after Caleb while Donna snapped photos. 
           Lisa looked around the room. She could barely hear the Christmas music from the CD player. The cardboard tree swung. Wrapping paper, crayons, and packing peanuts littered the floor. It was not quite the vision she had had for Christmas morning. But it was perfect. She picked up the cardboard Nativity and studied it again.
           “Your mom was right, Kevin.”
           “Huh?”
           “It just wouldn't be Christmas without the Child.”



For more Christmas tales, see my Anthologies page

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Dear Uncle Theo






Keene Township, Ohio
May 25, 1893

Dear Uncle Theo,

     I hope this letter finds you safe and well in the big city.  We all miss you, though none so much as Archippos.  Mother mutters that he must be a faithful hound indeed to whine and howl at the absence of such a master.  She has not forgiven you for taking your journey during the planting season.  "Any able-bodied man . . . " she says when Archippos barks, glancing at Father in the corner.  "I shall never understand my brother."

     I understand, of course.  And the young man you hired to take your place on the farm is quite agreeable.  Abel speaks politely and works hard, and the crops are coming along quite well with his assistance.  Still, you had not been gone a week before Mother turned Abel out of your room and installed a lodger there.  Abel nodded and said, "Yes'm," and took his little bundle out to the hayloft.  John, though, was furious.  You know my brother's temper.  He told Mother that if Abel was to sleep outside, that he would, too.  Mother simply shrugged.  I almost envy the boys out there, with no one shushing them after prayers.  Mother would probably let out John's room, too, if she could find a soul desperate enough to live in his musty garret.  

    I do not trust the lodger, Mr. Schneeman.  He leers at Mother with his coal-black eyes and sniffs his sharp nose before every blessed thing he says.  I think Mother hoped he'd pity us and help out on the farm, but he does no such thing.  He claims to be a traveling salesman, and leaves the homestead with his mysterious painted cart every morning.  He must not travel far, though, for he returns to the supper table promptly every evening.  When we're washing up, Mother grumbles that Mr. Schneeman eats far more than his share, but she won't say a thing to him.  She is afraid to lose his money.

     Archippos is howling again.  I am sure he does miss you, but I think there is more to his distress.  The hens have been acting most peculiarly, and even placid Bossy has been skittish in the milk stall.  I think the pixies have gotten in again.  Mother won't hear anything about it, though.  What shall I do?

     Father shakes his head and says that none of this would ever have happened if Mr. Buchanan had not been reelected.  But that is what he always says, so no one pays him any mind.

     Have you found what you were seeking?  I wish I could join you and see the great Columbian Exposition, but I cannot leave Mother now.  She would likely rent my little room out to someone even more disagreeable than Mr. Schneeman.

Your faithful niece,
Susannah


P.S.:  Who wants to play the Letter Game?



Thursday, October 17, 2013

Just Try It.

Beware of Dog, by Justin Morris



Hop my fence.
Toe my turf.
Burrow beneath.
I'll show what I'm worth.

Rap on my gate.
Invade my space.
Worm your way in.
Look at my face.

My sidekick's seething,
gnashing the air.
Try to get past us--
double dog dare.



Wednesday, October 2, 2013

A Prophet's Dream

photo by Mark Haley


wandering through
a dreary world
one bright spot ahead:
a tree
with fruit
of joy

at the summit of
a narrow path
steep, uneven, long
flanked by an iron rail
those who lean on it
won't stray

Choose:

make your own track
through dark mists,
distractions,
vain heights and filthy depths

or

cling to the way
that leads to where
God's love, bound in sweet flesh,
hangs on a tree
free for all who come

one taste begins
to right all wrongs
and dry all tears
not shed for joy



The prophet's name was Lehi.  He lived around 600 B.C.  You can read the vision in his own words, and explore its interpretation from his son.

To hear what a prophet has to say today, click here!

Winner!

My story, "Escape," is a winner in the 2013 Epeolatry Contest!  The challenge was twofold: write a non-romantic story using words from a list of romantic terms, and to do it in only 600 words.  The second part was more difficult for me.  The version I posted here is a bit longer, but I kept chipping away until my submission was exactly 600 words long.  It was quite an exercise.  Anyway, the 600-word version is on display at Satyr's Garden, along with two other winners.  Check it out!

Friday, September 27, 2013

Moth

The Moth and the Lamp, Cesar Santos 


orbiting the glow
of friendship and warm caring--
swatted yet again.
will she find her own someday?
hold it tight and never stray . . .







Friday, September 20, 2013

On Holiday





Laree hoisted the pack off her back, and sat at the picnic table.  She pulled out her guidebook, and the paper-wrapped lunch she had purchased from the tight-lipped proprietress of the village pub.  The sea breeze blew her hair awry, and flipped the pages of the book.  It's quiet here, she thought.  Just a little too quiet.

Tired of the clamor of city life, sick of deadlines and traffic and pretending to please people, she'd thought a self-guided walking tour of the Shetland Islands would be a perfect vacation.  She could explore at her own pace, think, write, dream, and get some good exercise and fresh air, too.  It was beautiful, and she relished the freedom, but the first couple of days had been a bit more lonesome than she'd expected.

Laree curiously unwrapped her packet.  She'd ordered the Ploughman's Lunch, thinking it sounded appropriately rustic.  She was a bit disappointed when it consisted entirely of a baguette and a wedge of cheese.  Oh, and a foil packet of chutney.  What was chutney, anyway?  Opening the packet, she sniffed it, and still didn't know.

"Mind if I join ye?"

A stocky man approached the picnic table, lunch bucket in hand.  A few grey hairs stuck out at odd angles from under his cap.  From the chaff stuck in his thick woolen jersey and the muck on his wellies, Laree guessed he might be an actual ploughman.  She wondered what he'd have for lunch.  "Be my guest," she said, waving at the other side of the table.

"You'll be mine, more like."  He chuckled as he seated himself, then gestured toward the field nearby.  "This is my place," he said, puffing out his chest slightly.  "Been in the family for generations." 

He opened a Thermos and Laree smelled the tantalizing scent of curry.  She swallowed her envy and bit off a chunk of her bread.

The man eyed Laree's pack.  "You're on a walking holiday, then?"

Laree nodded, her mouth full.  This bread was tougher than she'd expected.

"Will ye be headin' across the troll-below?"  He pointed at the sandy strip leading to a green island.

Laree frowned, and consulted her guidebook.  She swallowed quickly.  "This says it's a 'tombolo.'  'St. Ninian's Isle is tied to the Mainland by the largest active tombolo in the UK.'"

The farmer shook his head dismissively.  "Well, we call it the troll-below.  See, long, long ago, there used to be a bridge out to that island.  Folks would let their flocks wander across in the morning to graze, then send the dogs to round them up at night.  But if a goat crossed a little too early, or a little too late at dusk, a troll would jump out from under the bridge and catch it."

"A troll?"

"Nasty bugger, he was.  Some of the big billy goats could butt him into the water, but most of the little ones didn't have a chance.  It got to be pretty bad.  The villagers were losing kids left and right, and they didn't know what to do."  He took a long drink from his other Thermos.

"So, what happened?"

"Well, St. Ninian came along to convert the heathens.  But they were frettin' about the troll, and wouldn't listen to his sermons.
Finally he called the village together by the bridge, and told each person to dump a pail of sand on it.  They were scared to go on the bridge even in daylight anymore, but they bucked up and did it.  Then the good saint raised his hands and chanted.  Before their very eyes, the bridge sank into the sea, and sand covered the whole way to the island.  'The troll has gone below,' St. Ninian declared.  'You need not fear for your flocks.'  For good measure, he planted leeks on the island." 

"Leeks?"

"Trolls don't care for goats with onion breath, see?"  The man's face crinkled as he laughed.  "They still grow out there.  Should be blooming, as a matter of fact."  He packed up his lunch again.  "Well, have a nice time, miss.  But mind your step on the troll-below.  That troll hasn't been seen for centuries, but you never know..."

Laree wrapped up the rest of the tough roll and walked across the sand.  Stray sunbeams highlighted the ruined chapel, and set the sea sparkling.  She spent the afternooon exploring the island, with its oddly-named features.  She didn't see any seals in the Selchie Geo, but there were plenty of fat sheep at Baaberg.  She took pictures of the cliffs and holms, and gathered leek blossoms in the meadows.  It was a glorious day.  Finally, as the sun dipped low, she decided to head back to the mainland.  She was skipping across the sand when she heard a voice.

"Who's that trippin' across my bridge?"

Laree skidded to a stop and looked around.  A wild figure crouched on the strand, a dozen feet away.  Its sandy hair whipped in the freshening breeze.  Burlap sacks covered its back.  Laree's heart thudded.  There's no such thing as trolls, she told herself.  Right?

"And don't say you're goin' across the bridge, up the hill to eat grass.  I've heard that one before."

"How about leeks?"  She brandished her bouquet.

The figure laughed and stood up.  A tall young man stood before her, swinging the burlap sacks to the ground.  His jersey and wellies were cleaner versions of what the old farmer had worn to lunch, and his eyes sparkled like the sea.

"My dad thought you might be hungry after your ramble.  Would you like to come back to the house?  Mum makes a mean billy goat curry."

"Goat?"  Laree's mouth watered at the thought of curry, but was it a good idea to go home with a troll impersonator?

He laughed again.  "Actually, I think it's chicken today.  Come along.  And bring the leeks.  They might come in handy."

He swung open a gate, and Laree followed, thankful for new friends on the wild Shetland coast.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Escape







Cornelius Lawrence Fortinberry IV placed his ticket in the upper pocket of his suit coat and used the change to purchase a newspaper.  He climbed into the train and slipped into the gap between two stout businessmen.  He opened the newspaper and held it in front of his face, and no one paid him any attention.  Corny breathed a sigh of relief as the wheels began to roll.  He'd had a busy morning.

Just yesterday he'd seen his parents off on the Queen Mary.  In all the pre-travel flurry, they seemed to have quite forgotten their young son.  Still he stood on the pier and waved obediently when Nanny told him it was time.

"Don't you wish you could go with them?" she asked, a wistful look in her eyes.  "To see the opera?  Maybe even the Queen?"

Corny shrugged.  Opera held no allure for an eleven-year-old.

Nanny gave his shoulders a squeeze.  "You'd rather stay here, nice and safe with Nanny, wouldn't you?  Come along."

Corny wrinkled his nose.  Who needed Europe when the Wild West was only a train ride away? He kept his mouth shut and reviewed his scheme.

This morning, he dressed himself while Nanny drank her tea. He did not wince when she pulled his necktie too tight. None of his shoes could strictly be called comfortable, but he chose the pair that pinched least. When she had finished making up his bed, they walked down the long staircase to breakfast. Two steps above the marble entryway, Nanny halted. She pressed a hand to her ample bosom.

“Are you all right, Nanny?”

“I'm fine, dear. Just a trifle woozy.” She closed her eyes and slumped forward.

Corny ran to the kitchen. “Help! Nanny has collapsed!”

The servants froze.

“What's that?”

Corny wrung his hands. “Nanny! Come help!”

The cook set down her tray, the chauffer dropped his mug, and the housekeeper followed them out of the kitchen. Corny watched them go. It was the work of a moment for him to steal the stack of cash from the housekeeper's accounts drawer, pick up the satchel he'd stashed in the pantry, and leave by the back door.

On the train, Corny tried to read the newspaper he'd bought. He knew his father read it from cover to cover daily, but he couldn't imagine why. The financial news was duller than his Latin text, and even less comprehensible. He folded the paper and reached into his satchel. He had only packed a few essentials. It had been difficult to leave his chemistry set behind, but it had served his purpose. He made sure his pop-gun and pocket knife were safe, then pulled out his travel guide: Wild West Weekly. He balanced it behind the newspaper. The stuffy old men still ignored him. Pleased with his covert arrangement, Corny read his hero's latest venture until his stomach issued an audible groan.  He folded the newspaper into a neat square, in case he needed any tinder, and made his way to the dining car.


Charles watched the boy stare at the menu.  He seemed to be  comparing the prices with the contents of his purse. A spiffy suit like that, and a budget? Interesting. He poured the boy a glass of water.

Are you waiting for your father, young man?”

The boy looked up, too quickly, his eyes a little too innocent. “No, he's waiting for me, in Chicago.” He shifted in his seat, and something fell to the floor.

Allow me,” Charles said as he scooped up the magazine. Wild West Weekly. The boy must be a runaway. Charles could respect that. His own great-grandfather had run away on a different sort of railroad. He wasn't sure what kind of oppression this boy was leaving behind, but it was an escape nonetheless. Charles smiled. He'd allow the boy some freedom, at least as far as Chicago.

Can I recommend the chicken and dumplings? We have a special price for early diners.”

The boy nodded gratefully, then buried his nose in his magazine.

Ride on, cowboy,” Charles whispered as he took the order to the kitchen.



Friday, September 6, 2013

Perch

Dodos, by Jeanie Tomanek


I am queen of my tree
don't coop me up
or clip my wings
don't be sore
when I dive
and soar
but come
and fly with me


I love this artist's work.  Do click the link to see more!


Saturday, August 24, 2013

Reflection

Photo by Elena Kalis

The barrier is not so firm, but fine.
Did you catch a glimpse before slipping through,
leaving behind
the canker that muddled your mind,
limbs weary from fighting the current?
Is the other side a reflection
of this murkiness, but clear?
Take along your vivid colors.
A sweet savor trails in your wake.
Rest with the saints in glory,
but we know you won't be still.
If work there be to do, you'll find it;
idleness was never your ideal.
Family ties still anchor us--
we'll watch for your beacon smile
when our turn comes to cross
and wait, with you,
'til every silken hair will be restored.


For my mother-in-law, Sierra Sue Osgood, 1946-2013

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Extreme Swishing

Marcelle Lender Dancing the Bolero by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec


"--and it's a proud day for Liechtenstein.  Fabian Bürzle has captured not only the gold but a new world record in the Top Hat Limbo, stooping nearly two centimeters lower than the second-place contestant from Spain.  Now we'll turn it over to Stanley for the next event in the twenty-fourth Impracticalympics."

"Thanks, Bob.  Francine and I are here in the Grand Ballroom for the finals in the 50-meter High Heel Hurdles.  After a day of tough elimination rounds, the top challengers are lining up at the start.  What do you think, Francine?"

"These ladies have come a long way, Stanley.  They've faced tough scrutiny of their shoes this year, but all the finalists' heels are within the regulation height range of 8.5 to 13 centimeters.  And each is wearing the standard three petticoats."

"Hasn't there been some controversy about that, Francine?"

"A few participants caused a stir in the World Games two years ago, running in miniskirts and shoes with added rubber soles.  But the International Committee ruled last September that the miniskirts were unsightly, and rubber soles were contrary to the spirit of Impracticality.  Only plain leather soles are permitted for this competition, and petticoats are mandatory."

"What about the jewelry?"

"The runner from Sweden is toeing the line, wearing only a light silver chain.  Heavier necklaces are favored by traditional athletes, but the Committee hasn't imposed any weight regulations yet."

"The ladies are assuming their starting positions for the final race of the High Heel Hurdles.  The starter raises his pop-gun and . . . they're off!  China takes an early lead, with England and South Africa close behind."

"I love the swish and click of this sport, Stanley.  Thanks to Our Corporate Sponsors for the in-floor microphones that share it with our audience."

"England pulls ahead, Sweden gaining.  It's amazing how they can clear those hurdles, Francine."

"It takes most athletes years of training and determination, Stanley.  Practical experience helps, too.  We've seen impressive performances from young mothers whose toddlers are restless at church."

"Oh, no!  The runner from South Africa wobbles and--could she have broken a nail?"

"It's a beginner's mistake, Stanley.  Only the high stress of international competition can bring that out in an athlete with this much experience."

"China and England are necklace-and-necklace, Sweden straining to catch up.  And . . . Velocita Gonzales from Venezuela takes a great leap over the last hurdle for the win!" Stanley rustles his papers.  "Wait.  Where did she come from?"

"Venezuela, obviously."

Stanley shrugs.  "And it has been another amazing race, full of triumph and tragedy, in the twenty-fourth Impracticalympics!  Next up, platform shoe diving, and the 1,000 meter butterfly chase.  Stay tuned."

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Refill on Ghost Town Road


Canteens empty quickly,
crossing the Mojave,
even in an air-conditioned car.

We exit at the first
oasis
(or is this?)
to bring our hoarse throats
to the trough.

Fuel prices through the roof
temperature higher
the desert station's occupied
by an empty cop car
and a pancake-tired van
that might have been waiting
thirty years.

The attendant flickers past
to check the air pump
and fades from view.
(There's plenty of air here.
What we need is agua.)

Stacks of water bottles
glow an eerie blue,
a tempting illusion of refreshment.
We brought our own.
We sneak to the back,
fill them with lukewarm water
from a chipped sink
in the dusty washroom,
and make our escape
before the mirage can fade.

A living town is just around
the next bend.
We fill our saddlebags
with cool, moist fruit
and wonder
is the water really wet?



Friday, July 19, 2013

Yukon Gold

photo by Agustin Berrocal 

Hank leaned against a tree.  The rough bark bit into the flesh of his forearm as he rested his forehead on his sweaty skin.  He closed his eyes and breathed deeply.  Air was the only thing he could still afford, air and the water that trickled mockingly past his feet.

A crunch in the leaves startled him, but he did not look up until he felt an arm around his shoulder.

"You still here, son?"  The grizzled prospector looked Hank over, shaking his head.  "How'd you come to pick this sorry ravine?"

"Mr. Wallace at the Land Office said it was a good claim, sir," Hank said, shaking old Sam's arm off.

Sam snorted.  "Wily Wallace was a snake-oil salesman long afore he joined up with the guv'ment.  He ain't changed his spots none."

Hank bit his lip, and looked down at his scruffy boots.  Sam sighed, and patted the young man's shoulder again.  "You've done your best here.  Go on home, son.  Take up a trade, find a nice girl."

"I can't," Hank whispered.  "I can't go home."

"Why not?"

Hank straightened up, pans clanking in his pack.  "Times were hard after Papa died.  Mama sent me to sell the herd, to get enough money to keep the ranch.  I met a man who made me a better offer:  trade the cattle for a prospectin' kit, head north to where the streambeds are made of gold, where a young man can dig up enough to buy the ranch and the herd five times over, all in one afternoon.  I took his tools and just kept goin'.  I thought I could make a quick fortune and be right back.  And I knew in the back of my mind that if I told Mama, she'd call me a fool."  Hank sat down on a stump, and put his face in his hands.  "She would've been right."

"Get back to your Mama, boy.  You've worried her long enough."

"But I keep thinkin' I'll find some gold in the next pan.  Or the next.  Just one more . . . And that's all I can do.  I've spent everything I had.  I can't even buy a ticket home."

Sam pursed his lips.  "Now, I might be able to help you out a bit, for your Mama's sake."

Hank stood up and adjusted his pack.  "No, sir, I've got to do this on my own.  So long," he said, tramping into the ravine.

Hank walked upstream until he was too dizzy to go on.  He unpacked his pans and sluice box, wondering when his stomach had stopped growling.  Had it given up on him, too?  He spotted a few unripe blackberries and choked them down, but felt worse than before.  He sluiced his throat with the cold mountain stream, then set to work.

Scoop, shake, sort, swat mosquitoes, repeat.  Hank's eyes grew heavy.  Scoop, shake, swat . . .

Hank woke with a jerk.  He could see stars between the pine needles.  A bat flitted across the sky.  Something skittered through the underbrush.  And what was that smell?  It was so faint he thought he must be imagining it.  Then a breeze came down the slope, bringing more of the scent.  Hank scrambled up and felt his way through the trees, following his nose.

He rounded a boulder and found himself at the entrance of a cave.  His eyes ignored the shadows and focused on the light shining a few yards inside.  Sinking to his hands and knees, Hank crawled toward the bed of gleaming nuggets.  He closed his eyes and breathed a prayer of thanks for this bonanza, then reached--

"What you think you doing?"  A gruff voice issued from the shadows.  "You burn hand.  And it not your food.  For my man."

Hank sat back on his heels as an immense woman detached herself from the darkness.  He took in her unkempt hair and robe made of rough skins.  He thought he ought to be afraid, but he blurted out, "But I'm so hungry!  Taters have never smelled so good.  Please, mayn't I just have one?"

She squatted on the other side of the fire and fixed Hank with unblinking eyes.  "He miss even one.  You eat his food, maybe he eat you instead."

Hank shivered.  He wrapped his arms around himself, but the shivering didn't stop.  He started to feel dizzy again.

The woman narrowed her eyes.  Using a stick, she pulled one of the potatoes off the bed of coals.  Leaving it in front of her left toes, she cocked her head at Hank and asked, "Why?"

Hank poured out his story once again.  He wasn't sure the woman could understand all of it, but she didn't move while he spoke.  When he finished, she nodded once.

"Eat."  She pushed the cooling potato in his direction.  He took it in both hands, closed his eyes, sniffed, then took a bite.   It tasted even better than it smelled, warm and soft and almost buttery, even though she hadn't spread anything on it.

"Oh, thank you, ma'am.  This is better than any gold."  Hank licked the crumbs off his fingers.

"True," the woman said, raising her shaggy eyebrows.  "But now you hide."

Hank heard a crashing in the trees outside the cave.  The woman pushed him toward the wall, and covered him with smelly furs.  Lying still on the stone floor, Hank lifted the fur to peek out.  He saw a massive foot, as long as Hank's whole arm, and covered in dark, matted hair.  He decided he'd seen enough.

"Where my food?" rumbled a gravelly voice.  "One gone."

"Bear steal it while I fetch water."

"What I smell?"

"Bear.  I get it.  Make rug next day."

The big foot kicked at Hank's hiding place.  Thankfully, Hank's yelp coincided with a massive sneeze.

"Bear?"

"Bear.  You eat food."

Hank listened to slurps, grunts, and a few more sneezes as the owner of the foot devoured the potatoes.  Despite his terror, and a little envy, he fell into a deep sleep.

Hank woke to early daylight.  He found himself bouncing along on a fur-clad shoulder, still wrapped in the bear skin.  "Hey!" he cried.

"Shh."

The bouncing stopped.  The huge woman set him down on the turf next to the stream.  Hank scrambled up.  There was his pack, his pans waiting on the bank.  He reached to pick up the sluice box. 

"No.  You not need."  She stuffed Hank's pack with pale yellow potatoes.  "Take these, plant at home.  No come back."

Daylight was not kind to the woman.  Now Hank could see spiders in her hair, the grayish tone of her skin.  Still, he remembered his manners.

"Yes, ma'am.  Thank you, ma'am.  This is my treasure, now."

Her granite skin crinkled around her eyes as she patted his head.

"Good boy."

She stepped back between the trees as Hank shouldered his pack.  He thought, briefly, of how much heavier it would be if it were full of gold nuggets.  A lot heavier, but not nearly as tasty.  Considering prices in town, he should be able to trade a few taters for the price of a train ticket, and still have enough to plant on the ranch.  Maybe he could even send Mama a telegram.  Hank whistled as he toted his edible gold back to civilization.


Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Authenticated

How often do you get to see a piece of history about which you have written?  If you are a local historian, probably pretty often.  But I traveled a long way, and was still surprised to see this one:  the very pouch in which Ezra Allen kept his gold dust.  Remember that?  It's an important detail in my play, An Authentic Christmas.  And I saw the real thing in a display case at the Mormon Battalion Historic Site in San Diego, California.  The Site is a delightful place to visit, with friendly staff, an interactive multimedia presentation, and hands-on activities at the end.  Learning about my ancestors' experiences left me with a greater appreciation for the air-conditioned van in which I had just crossed the Mojave Desert.  Stop by and visit if you are ever in the neighborhood, and give a sigh for poor old Ezra and Sarah.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Demitasse


Supermoon 2013, Julio Cortez, AP 

rosy teacup moon
half full or half empty now?
dreams of liberty


Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Featured on MMB


I've just returned from a hot, sunny vacation to the comforting gray blanket of the Pacific Northwest.  I'm catching up with laundry before catching up on blogging, but I did notice something in my queue that I'd like to pass along.  I recently joined the contributing writers at MMB, and my first article was published today!  MMB features value-centered prose, designed to uplift and entertain.  Check it out!

Monday, June 17, 2013

Premiere

The Promenade, 1918, by Marc Chagall

Today is the beginning
One grand moment that ensures
You'll have eternity

Roll out the red carpet
Shine the light on your premiere
Today is the beginning

Reflect upon the past
Picture what may come to be
You'll have eternity

Prepare to improvise
Life won't always follow script
Today is the beginning

The great romantic leads
Step into supporting roles
To last eternally

Dream together in the clouds
Grounded in serenity
Today is the beginning
You'll have eternity


For my sister's recent wedding


Thursday, June 13, 2013

Chamber Music

© Charleston Trust Photograph by Axel Hesslenberg

She thought she would wilt
when the parlor door shut.
Perched on a sticky folding chair,
she fluffed the ruffles of her sundress,
but the flicking of her funeral fan
simply sent more sultry air
to slap her face.  The men in ties
tuned up, brows glistening,
peering at the pages through
the thick humidity.  What could
the black spots mean?
She caught a breath as they caught theirs,
and with a nod, bows stroked strings,
growling, prowling, sweetly singing.
She closed her eyes and flew away
on the soaring, sudden breeze.


This door takes me back to Charleston, South Carolina.  Someday I'll return and soak up the heat of the Spoleto USA arts festival...

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Alchemy

Lighthouse Dandelions by Jamie Wyeth 

Though dusky clouds make haste to bring the night,
the sun breaks through with one last show of light.
The bright beams reach across the sea, take hold,
and turn the granite lighthouse into gold.
For but a breath, across the deep and damp,
the stone walls shine far brighter than the lamp.

The dandelions below are unimpressed.
Their hue remains although the sun sinks west.
Assured of their own yellowness, and pleased,
they toss their manes, nod proudly at the breeze.
But all too soon their gold will turn to gray,
and, unlike the sturdy lighthouse, blow away.


Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Verboten

no smoking, by Togan Gökbakar

Click.

"See here, can't you read pictograms?  No cameras allowed."  The old man waved his cigarette at a sign on the wall.

The girl skidded to a stop and squinted up at the slashed red circles.  She looked at each in turn, lips moving soundlessly.  The old man chuckled, and his wife shook her head over the illiteracy of the young.

Then the girl pointed at the sign herself.  "That's not a camera.  It's suitcases that aren't allowed."  She glared and raised her camera again.  "Caught you red-handed."

Click.

The old woman pulled her sleeves down over her scarlet gloves. 

The old man was unperturbed.  "This is a transportation center, young whippersnapper.  Of course our bags are allowed.  But your roller skates are not."

"Roller skates are a perfectly good form of transportation.  Environmentally sound, you know?  Unlike train engines, with all their smoke.  Look at the sign.  That's no roller skate, it's a steam locomotive that's not allowed.  Nasty things."

The man laughed aloud.  "No locomotives?  In a train station?  That's absurd!  But you have no business bringing that dog here."

The girl snorted.  "My dog is a hardworking husky.  He has every right to be here.  The sign is about little sausage dogs, like your wife has in her prohibited suitcase."

The old woman pushed the torpid pooch further down into her purse.

"And you're smoking cigarettes," the girl said triumphantly.  "That's four for four, as you're waiting for a locomotive and all."

The old man growled, but his wife nudged him.  "She has a point, dear."

"That's not a cigarette on the sign," he sputtered.  "That--that--that's the plume on your ridiculous hat!  Not allowed.  Get out of here!"

The girl raised an eyebrow.  "I was just leaving when you interrupted me."

She took one last snapshot of the fuming old man and his uneasy wife.  Then she adjusted her feathered cap, took a firm grasp of the husky's reins, and shouted, "Mush!"  The big dog sprang into action, leaping down to the tracks and racing away.  The girl yodeled with glee as she rolled along, her feather streaming behind like a peacock in flight.