Monday, December 28, 2009

2010 Resolution and Reading List

1. Resolution: Volunteer. I was a little burned by my last experience, but I'm resolved to find a way to share my love of reading with young people. Whether they want it or not! But hopefully they will :)

2. Reading List: I'm so fortunate to have so many good books to work through! Here is the top of the pile:
- The Republic, Plato (which I need to read in honor of one of the best teachers I've had, and so that now, as friends, we can talk about it)
- The Last Queen, CW Gortner (the excerpts of this are just lovely, I can't wait!)
- East, Wind, Rain (which I bought because it was repped by a potential agent; that didn't work out but I still want to read it)
- The Rebels, Sandor Marai (as I continue my fascination with Hungarian culture, all sparked by my wonderful Hungarian friends)
- Women Building Peace (on my Christmas list, but from a long time ago - am I still the young idealistic feminst I was? We'll see)
- Mentors, Muses & Monsters (this and the other wonderful books on writing that I have. I'm excited to work on improving my craft)
- research for the next novel (ok, I get to be a little mysterious about that)

Those plus my reads for the Historical Tapestry Challenge - so much reading! What a joy. I worry sometimes that I'll die prematurely, and won't have had a chance to do all the learning and growing I would have, a large part of which will come from books!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Home in the Snow

The beautiful snow is now going to give way to grey slush and treacherous ice, so I thought I'd post a picture to show how lovely it was at first. Or at least how heavy! This is 16th Street, where we live. On a clear day, you'd see the White House at the end of the road.

We walked around on Saturday in the storm and it was amazing how many people still insisted on being out and about driving, including a taxi cab spinning its wheels to no avail, and a Prius that looked destined for disaster.
The best part about the storm, of course, was getting to stay home and read (especially when I got an extra day off today!). I finished Life and Death in Shanghai which was just awesome, really inspiring. I really couldn't say enough good things about it - her brave story will live with me so long as I have mental capacity to hang on to it. This morning, I finished Anita Brookner's Altered States which was probably the most lonely book I've read in ages, if not ever. I'm glad I wasn't alone when I read it or I might have become rather depressed. Now I'm flirting with a few other choices. What a lovely weekend.

Ok, I couldn't resist posting a photo of our cat, Nuublay. So cute!

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Temp

It was his last day. The boxes were packed, the coffee stains wiped from the desk, the papers all filed or shredded. It's true, they had hosted a breakfast for him three days before, and it was a nice breakfast. Rich pancakes and sweet, salty sausage served up by a cozy diner, just a few blocks away. "You've done a great job, we really appreciate your dilligence," they told him. "Funny that it ended up being what, nearly a year and a half?" "Two years," he replied. "You were just great," they told him. "Just great." He enjoyed that breakfast, even though it was mostly in silence while they talked to each other. They did pay for his meal.

On the afternoon of his last day, he ran into a few of them in the hallway. They were bundled up, heading out for coffee. "Oh yeah, your last day! Be sure to stop by and say farewell," they told him. "I'll try to come over before you leave," a nicer one said. He nodded. "Thanks."

He had enjoyed the two years. The assignment was much longer than he'd anticipated, and the work, even though it was mundane, was a joy compared to his previous assignment as a telephone receptionist, a mere conduit, no one's destination. Here he had responsibilities, and people came to him to ask questions.

The sun set before the day closed, and as his office dimmed, he waited, watching the clock march towards his conclusion. No visitors came. He sat in silence, then picked up his box, glanced around to make sure he hadn't forgotten anything, and walked out.

The cold outside was bracing, and he wished he had leather gloves, any gloves, to protect his fingers as he gripped the cardboard box. He took a deep breath and launched himself forward.

"Hey!" A voice called. He kept walking, the voice tuned out, intended for someone else. "No, wait! I wanted to catch you but got stuck in a meeting." He turned to see the woman who had supervised him, measuring his productivity in folders filed and cases referred, standing shivering in the cold. Her arms were wrapped around herself, little protection from the winter, and a white envelope dangled from her hand.

"I wanted to make sure you got this," she explained, holding out the envelope. "A reference. You were great, really you were. So hopefully this will, I don't know, explain. Help make sure you get another job you like. I know you liked it here." Her voice trailed off, and she looked at the ground.

"Oh, wow, well, thank you. Thank you very much." He bobbled the box around so he could grab the envelope, and managed to slide it under the lid. "That's nice of you."

"Well, I'm freezing, I'd better run back in. But good luck, I mean it."

He nodded, and watched her hurry back to the glass sanctuary of the lobby. He smiled the whole way home. A reference. Someone else's praise, solidified and permanent. He didn't notice the cold, not for a long time.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Honolulu, by Alan Brennert

This is for the Historical Tapestry challenge - letter B.

I grabbed this book in a five-minute panic at the library, and I'm grateful I didn't have any more time to peruse the shelves. The cover to this book turned me off - it looks like an Asian sexual fetish story - but because I couldn't find another historical fiction book written by a Mr. or Ms. B_, Honolulu won by default. Now that I've met Jin, learned about her homeland in Korea and her efforts to make a life in early 20th century Hawai'i, I'm definitely glad I was in such a rush.

Jin starts off life as a young girl named Regret, for her parents' feelings upon welcoming her to the world. She has greater ambitions than Confucian Korea smiles upon, and so she strong-arms her way into some luck and adventure. That takes her, as a "picture bride," to Hawai'i, where she meets the man who selected her picture from the pile. It's hardly love at first sight, but Jin ("Gem," as she now calls herself) vows to make the best of it.

The book follows Jin's life in Hawai'i, as she and the young society there work to make their ways. Jin watches, close but on the sidelines, as Honolulu struggles to come to terms with its racially-mixed identity, and she shares with the reader her own struggles.

The writing is often lovely, with evocative sentences like, "Her hair was mostly white, with a few strands of black threading through it like old memories." The prose occasionally wanders into purple, stretching the credibility of a first-person narrator who has had little education (though she treasured what she found) and speaks English as a second language. But, we can ignore these excesses for a tender and moving story.

My largest gripe with the book is the narrator's insistence on spelling out Korean and Hawaiian traditions to the reader, introducing expository paragraphs that break up the narrative. There are more graceful ways to explain habits or cultures foreign to the reader, and it reminded me too much of the author behind the curtain. Fortunately, these fade away as we get to know Jin and, in the end, her story and lovely personality make for a memorable, enjoyable read.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

A Basement Gem

This week is so busy that I worry I won't be able to even complete half of the things on my to-do list. When life is stressful, it's extra-inspiring to hear about little blips of joy, even if they happen to a stranger. Last night, at an amazing concert, I slipped into the basement of the venue to gulp down some water from the fountain. As I was doing so, I came across a woman on a cell phone. She was practically radiating excitement, her words laced with awe.

"And the first reading is tomorrow!" She told her invisible interlocutor. "But that's the only reading I can make for two weeks, because of the thing at [prominent local performance venue]. Oh, I didn't tell you about that? It's a dream come true! They're paying me $200 to sing in two shows there! They're actually going to pay me!"

I walked away smiling. I was happy for her - she'd apparently just been picked for a play, and on top of that was getting paid to do something she was thrilled about. What a nice thing to find in the basement.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Holiday Spirit

I find that, somewhat to my surprise, each year I get excited about the holidays. I'm not really religious, so it doesn't hold that meaning to me. I don't like commercialism and worry about the environment, so that's kind of a downer on the Earth/culture front. But in spite of that, I love the first sense of crisp air, the anticipation of family gatherings, the sugar cookies and the sparkling tree lights that December brings. This year, husband and I have decided (was he joking? I wasn't) that perhaps we should focus our celebration on the Winter Solstice - an annual occurence that I do find meaningful. Not for any pagan reasons, but just because it's a natural marker for the conclusion of another four seasons. (Ok, maybe that's slightly pagan. But I'm not leaving any offerings for the winter sprites. Santa is the only one who gets my cookies!) A friend today introduced me to Yalda - the Persian winter holiday. I look forward to learning more about it.

One of my favorite parts of the season is sending out Christmas cards. Snail mail - lovely. Snail mail of charming images on classy paper - even better! This year I'm adding a rubber stamp to seal them. ::sigh:: I need to boil some mulled wine and watch the snowflakes come down. And then read a book.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Library Adventures

I ran - literally - to the library after work today (ok, I alternated running and walking because I was wearing dress flats and because I didn't want to look like a dork). I wanted to make sure I got there before it closed because I needed to find a historical fiction book written by someone whose last name ends in B. Why? The Historical Tapestry Challenge. And because I love (love love love) going to the library and pulling random books to read. Ok, it's better when it's not crammed into 3 sweat-filled minutes before the library closes, but it's great regardless. Libraries remind me of being a kid, when walking into one was like walking into Possiblity, and coming home was always accompanied by an armload of Promises of Fun. Though thinking about that does now make me sad that instead of reading secretly under the sheets of my bed with a flashlight until my parents caught me, now I self-enforce my own bedtime 'cause I have to be functional in the morning. Oh well. Even so, I was so happy walking victoriously out the library, lights shutting off behind me, that I bought myself not one but TWO bottles of wine. (Of which I drank 1 glass. Adulthood. Sigh.)
Photo courtesy of Creative Commons.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Tunnel Consulting, Part 2

This is continued from Part 1.

The next day, a small man with greenish-blond hair falling over his forehead knocked on her flimsy door. As she opened it, he announced himself.

"I am the tunnel consultant, Marco Van Whimmel. Just call me Marco. Shall we sit out here?" He gestured at her peeling rocking chair and the wicker chair with a faded floral cushion.

"Yes, perfect," Julie concurred. She wrapped her cardigan around herself and took a seat in the wicker chair. Marco rocked awkwardly across from her. "So you ... build tunnels?" she asked.

"Exactly. I'm so sorry about the mix-up. I should have been here first. The bottom line is that someone has bought you a tunnel -" he flipped open a notebook and scanned down a page, holding it closely to his chest. "I can't disclose who. But the point is, you have a tunnel. So, where would you like it to?"

"To? I'm not in jail, so I'm not sure I need a tunnel to anywhere," Julie observed. She flicked the heels of her flip-flops up into her feet. "Where do most people get their tunnels to?"

"Oh, well there is no 'most.' But some popular choices are China, naturally, or the Grand Canyon, or the house of a married lover. Which reminds me - I should point out a few rules, tunnels we won't dig. No digging into bank vaults. Or jails, as you mentioned. We won't break the law, it wouldn't be good for business. Also, no tunnels into hell. You wouldn't think that'd be a problem, but we get the request every once in a while. Same concept as the jail break, I suppose. Anyways, it's more trouble than it's worth, so we've ceased doing that. Finally, no tunnels back in time. Or forward. Only lateral travel."

"Wait, China? Isn't that rather far?"

Marco glanced up at her, his blue eyes twitching. "Tunnels work differently. Nothing's 'far.' Please don't consider geography an obstacle, minus those restrictions I already mentioned."

Julie ran her fingers through her tousled hair, frowning and then repressing a giggle. "What about to your house?"

Marco pulled his lips into a tooth-baring smile that was either intended to show indifference or aggression - Julie couldn't tell. "No, I'm sorry, that's off limits."

"I was just kidding," Julie replied, releasing her giggle. "Let's see ... a tunnel to anywhere I want ..."

"You can mail me your answer, if you prefer," Marco noted, hugging his notebook to his chest.

"Oh yes? I think I'll do that. I need some time to think it over."

He handed her a business card with a simple P.O. Box address. "Send it by tomorrow and the technicians will be here in a week."

"You can't tell me who gave me this?" Julie asked as she showed Marco off her porch.

"No. Definitely not. Terms of the deal."

Julie nodded, and returned to her kitchen. She made up a pot of tea, and sat thinking about where she would like her tunnel to go.

In a week, the same booted man again stood on her front porch. Julie invited him in, and led him down to the basement.

"We can start it from here, you think?" she asked, pointing at the grey cement floor. She had pushed back her dusty boxes and broken furniture to clear a place.

"Why sure, that's no problem. But miss, uh, do I have your plans right? I mean, this is a bit unusual."

"A tunnel that loops around and comes back here? Yes, that's right. Just make sure it's cozy. It's the journey that matters, after all."

He nodded, made some notes, and thumped back up the stairs to get his equipment.

Tunnel Consulting, Part 1

The man standing on her front porch hooked his thumbs into his belt and regarded her with a raised eyebrow.

"You mean you haven't picked one out yet? Goddamn. How'm I supposed to install a tunnel if you haven't even talked to the damn consultant yet ..." His final words trailed off in a growl of frustration.

"Wait, you're joking right? Tunnel? Consultant?" Again, Julie considered shutting the door in the man's face.

"No, ma'am. You got a gift certificate, like I told you. It's not uncommon, that's how most folks get their tunnels. Mm, prob'ly all of 'em, tell you the truth. Anyways, we need to set you up with the consultant." The man pulled a cellphone out of his back pocket, tapped in a text message, and replaced it. He sighed, and shifted his weight between his heavy boots. "It'll just be a minute."

"Til the consultant gets here?" Julie asked, alarmed at the prospect of having these mad people invade her house. She began to wonder if she should call the police.

"No, no, til he tells me when he can meet you. Listen, I know what you're thinking - but this is for real." He shrugged, and offered no argument to support his claim. Strangely, Julie found his confidence credible.

An electronic melody announced the text message. "Twelve noon tomorrow alright with you, miss?" the man asked, holding his phone open, waiting.

"Tomorrow? Well, alright."

"Ok. Think about what kinda tunnel you want, and the consultant will be happy to talk it all over with you. We'll be seeing you later then. Sorry about the mixup. Goddamn schedulers," he muttered as he walked down her creaking wooden stairs.

Slowly, Julie shut the screen door.

Continued here.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


... For so much. It can be easy to forget, since there's still plenty more I'm dreaming of, but we live wonderful lives and I am grateful. It's nice to have a holiday dedicated to celebrating just that.

I'm working on a story that I hope to post over the weekend. I'll have plenty of driving time to use to think it over!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Review: The Teahouse Fire by Ellis Avery

For the Historical Tapestry challenge. Note there are 2 As here!

At the end of the American civil war, young Aurelia, through a series of tragic turns, finds herself transported from New York and orphaned and alone in Japan. She stumbles upon a teamaster's estate at a time when Japan is closing itself to all foreigners. Through the good fortune of her dark hair and the kind heart of the teamaster's daughter, Aurelia is taken in and becomes a servant to the family, presumed by her benefactors to be traumatized and ugly but still Japanese. Ellis Avery's story chronicles the girl's development into a young woman just as Japan evolves into a modern nation.

The novel does a lovely job of capturing the beauty and mystique of temae, the Japanese tea ceremony. Avery spent years studying temae, yet she makes it accessible to the novice without being didactic. In fact, I think it'd be accurate to consider tea as a separate character in the novel, as tea helps define the characters while they, in turn, struggle to keep temae relevant in changing, modernizing Japan. Similarly, Aurelia struggles with her identity, trying to reconcile her Westerness with her new, adopted Japanese-ness. After decades in Japan, her native languages hang awkwardly on her tongue, illustrating vividly the internal conflicts she faces.

The two central tensions of the book are Aurelia's identity conflict and her romantic travails. The first is illustrated with delicacy and poignancy. The second, however, rang a little false to me. Without dropping any spoilers here, I will just say that Aurelia's unflailing devotion to one love, who seems to use her, as well as her lingering passion for another love after a brief encounter, both felt a little difficult to understand. But, with a touching ending (I think I teared up), The Teahouse Fire is a beautiful, sensitive book that leaves the reader satisfied, if longing for a little whisked tea.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

On catching, or writing, the mouse

My cat, apparently, has an intuitive understanding of what makes "interesting." He pointed out to me today that, when sitting in a laundry basket, it is far more entertaining to try to catch the catnip-filled toy mouse through the holes of the basket than it is to simply reach up and over. When he can see all the mouse in its lame, grey cloth glory, the game loses its fun. Its mystery.

Which I guess is something of a reminder for writing, no? You can't just walk out naked onto the first page, you have to reveal your bits and pieces slowly. (Not to mix metaphors, or anything.)

No big revelation, but it does allow me to post a picture of my cute cat, Nuublay.

Thanks kitty.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

A Holocaust Survivor

Today I heard a Holocaust survivor speak. George Pick turned ten years old the day he, and the other Jews in Hungary, were ordered to wear gold stars on their clothing. For the remaining months of 1944, through the end of the war, he and his parents endured 22-hour long curfews, hid in a factory, and feared for their lives. George saved his own life when he and a friend escaped from the Swiss orphanage to which they'd been sent for safe-keeping; two days later, the twenty other Jewish children kept there were shot next to the Danube River.

I'm still astonished by the experience. Selfishly, I can't believe I got to hear the story straight from the lips of someone who lived it. But more deeply, I'm reminded of the horror of the Holocaust - something that is easy to forget, as it is so difficult to comprehend. How could so many people become so hateful, while even more look on in indifference, or, at best, cowardice? How could they forget that those they killed were people, individuals with stories and feelings? Eichmann in Jerusalem has some interesting discussion of that, as do many other works, but in spite of reading about it, it's still nearly impossible to truly, truly feel, to understand it as something people lived through and died in.

Which, as usual, brings me to reading - not to understand after the fact (which is, of course, essential), but to try to prevent these things from happening in the future, to guard ourselves from indulging in such hate. Reading fiction is perhaps the most empathetic act we can do - inserting ourselves into the mind of a character. If the writer is doing her job, that character is truly human, and we feel through them. I can't help but believe that the more we read, the more human we become, through the forced exposure to other people's stories and other viewpoints. I realize reading is by no means a panacea (hell, Hitler read a ton), but I firmly believe that it opens a door, or at least has the possibility of doing so. And the more doors we crack open in our souls, the more we are willing to explore each other, the fewer chances for horrifying dehumanization. It's worth a shot, at least.

* A note: With all my emphasis on the moral enrichment available from reading, that doesn't mean I've forgotten that reading should also be ridiculously, overwhelmingly fun and entertaining. Not in the way that brussel sprouts are good for you but also a little tasty, but in the way that dark chocolate has anti-oxidants. So does red wine. Yum.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

A Coffee Bridge

For Erin, who's making her own leap.

It started with the coffee shop. Each day, from 2-3pm, Marlene would escape, before the kids got home from school, before she had to start cooking dinner. She knew she was out of place in the hipster hangout, all worn vinyl booths and retro stained glass lamps, but she loved it nonetheless. She liked feeling transported into a more rarefied world, pretending that she was one of its denizens, even as she knew that no one truly belonged to the life she imagined the coffee shop held. Marlene sipped her rich coffee and stared out the picture window. She particularly liked it when it rained.

One day the coffee shop switched its black-and-white photos, hung rakishly across the walls, for some bright oil paintings. Beside each was a cream-colored business card displaying a scrawled price and the artist's name, Y. Peirte. Marlene stared, fascinated at the paintings. They glowed blue and green and yellow, but didn't speak to her at all. In their failure to grab her they intrigued. I could do that, she thought. Maybe even better. Maybe.

For three weeks, she stared at the garish paintings. She wondered about the artist, Y. Peirte, wondering if the paintings sold, if they provided a livelihood, or just satisfaction. After three weeks, her heart pounding, she bought two canvases, twenty paints, and five brushes from an art supply store.

For another week, she continued going to the coffee shop, but now it was only to hide. As she stared out the window onto the sidewalk, all she could see were the colors of her paints and the blank canvas.

One day at 2pm, Marlene inched her way towards the closet where she'd stashed her supplies. She pulled the bag up into the attic, laid everything out on the rough plywood floor. First a dab of blue, then of red. Mixed, made purple. The thoughts, feelings that had been percolating in her mind over the past few weeks slowly trickled onto the canvas. The art lessons from her youth crept up to the surface of her mind and her hands. She painted.

She painted each day, from 2-3pm. Bought another canvas, and painted some more. Sometimes she hated it, sometimes she loved it. But always she painted, always in secret. Her husband suspected, but he caressed her cheek and knew not to ask. She was terrified to reveal herself.

It was a year before she returned to the coffee shop. She didn't recognize the barista anymore, which made her both sad and giggly. Marlene drank her coffee, sipping from the edge of the white porcelain cup. When she finished, she rested it carefully in the saucer and, glancing at the paintings - different - on the walls, approached the clerk.

"May I speak to your manager?" she asked.

"That's me," the young woman replied, wiping her hands on her brown apron.

"I was wondering ..." Marlene mumbled, and lay a battered white envelope on the counter. Out from it she pulled eight photographs. Her paintings.

Gingerly, woman shuffled through the photographs.

"For the shop, you're thinking?"

"Yes," Marlene said, little more than a whisper.

The woman smiled. "Wonderful."

Learing about tolerance from books ...

... Or at least from this one. I stayed up until midnight last night to finish this book, which says something about how good it was - one, because it was Friday night and typically from the hours of 7pm-midnight on Fridays I transform into an 80-year-old, and second, because I'd been awake since 3:40 am that day (thanks kitties). The Silence and the Scorpion evaporated my fatigue however, as it is both a gripping, page-turning action story and a haunting lesson on what can happen to a polarized society.

Brian Nelson walks us through the dramatic events of April 11-14, 2002 in Venezuela, describing the euphoria and then terror of the marchers on the presidential palace, the resentment of the president's supporters against the previous robber regimes, and the chaos that unfolded as Venezuela went through three presidents in as many days. In the end, Venezuela emerges from the crisis not stronger and more unified, but more polarized, as both the president's supporters and opponents vilify the other, each searching to shape the "truth" to fit their own needs. Nelson makes it clear that the deaths that resulted from the April tumult and the persecution that follows stem from a divided society, one where its members forget their shared humanity and only villify each other.

This story, of course, is nothing new in the history of the world. But by learning of it, and the others like it, I hope we can remind ourselves what comes from extreme division and rancor. When we slander our political opposites with crude exaggerations ("Nazi," "traitor," "liar," "stupid") we're working to strip them of their personhood, to allow ourselves to believe that we have all the right and they are abstractions of evil. What a load of nonsense ... I hope we can all remember that. So, angry Tea Partiers and judgmental Green Tea Sippers and everyone in between (look at me pulling out the stereotypes), how about taking a deep breath, reminding ourselves that our opponents do have some good motives, and trying to tolerate each other? If not, we could end up here.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Literary versus Commercial? Bah!

"Few professors of English literature will ever admit to it, but the truth is that popular writers have had just as great an effect on the people of this nation as Dickens, Poe, or Melville and their classic works." Editor James L. Collins (copied from

This quote and its bedfellows confuse me. Why is "classical" literature assumed not to be "popular"? (I'm no literary scholar, but wasn't Dickens incredibly popular in his lifetime? I think the other two were as well.) Why do "literary" writers eschew a desire to please? I wonder if this isn't a 20th/21st century phenemenon, where artists react to the mass-commoditization of culture by attempting to make their products less accessible. For example, the classics of the plastic arts that we now revere (Rembrandt, Velasquez, Titian) were often intended by their makers to please their elite patrons, even if they were willing to push the envelope with what their customers found pleasing. Contrast that to some contemporary art that seems intended to provoke.

As for writing, I think we are misguided if we separate pleasure-inducing commercial literature from high-minded aesthetics. Fiction is beautiful because it speaks to our deep-seated desire for narrative. Language is stirring because it demonstrates our unique ability to create and shape images and feelings. There's no reason not to blend them. And that, in my mind, is the highest goal - a great story written with panache. I realize that conclusion is shared by many, but still people seem to brandish the false divide between "literary" and "commercial." Let's admit our base need for a story and celebrate the thought-provoking power words have.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Ideal Costume

Sam breathed deeply, filling his chest with pride as he carried his bag into the bathroom. Below the shiny red paper the bag held a greater treasure than the Christmas present it once contained. Glancing around shyly, he determined he was best off stepping into a stall to effect his transformation. Not impressive if he did it in front of the other boys, he concluded, closing the door behind him. Slowly, with reverence, he extracted the two pieces of black clothing. Stepping carefully on the tops of his sneakers, he wiggled out of his blue jeans and slipped into the black cotton pants. He shed his t-shirt and struggled with the buttons as he closed the black shirt. The outfit was a little larger than he'd hoped, but he knew he still looked like his brother's magazine. Sam had only snuck glances at the forbidden pages, contraband even for his older brother to hold, but he had seen enough to both fall in love and know how to mimic it.

He pulled the black hat down over his head and carefully, balancing, he stepped into the black shoes usually reserved for church. Satisfied with his transformation (even if he wished the hat had a brim going all the way around his head, like the picture), he smushed his Sam Clothes into the bag and strode out of the stall. Seeing the bathroom empty, he panicked and hurried to find his class.

Sam found the tail end of his class's column, and wedged himself in place next to Geena, the witch, and Darius, Spiderman. Darius gave him an appraising glance and whispered, "Cool costume! You're a ninja, right? Where are your, uh, nunchucks?"

Sam's eyes widened with horror. "No! I'm a spy!" He hissed. "Like Spy vs. Spy, you know!"

Darius shrugged and turned his attention to the front, as the march had started. They shuffled down the hallway and out the front doors, blue paint peeling, into the cool, damp day. Sam nudged his way past Darius and Geena, looking for Jimmy. Jimmy would know who he was.

The parents lining their parade route cheered and clapped for the shuffling feet, many of which were trying not to slip on the wet leaves in their unusual shoes. Sam scanned the crowd, but saw no familiar faces. He reached out and tapped a green shoulder.

"Jimmy!" He exclaimed. "You're Frankenstein, right?"

"You bet," his friend confirmed, eyes gleaming through the tiny holes in his plastic mask. "And you're ... Wait, I can't see with this thing on. Uh, a man witch?"

"No!" Sam pouted. "A spy!"

As they walked, Sam's ears caught whispers from the sidelines ... "Look at the Frankenstein! And the ninja!" "Well, what's that one, a ninja?" "Ninja," "Warlock ..." Blushing, angry and embarrassed, he turned his eyes to his shoes. Black, shiny, they kicked up clumps of brown leaves.

Suddenly, he smiled. He squared his shoulders, looked up, and smiled at the crowd. He almost waved, like a beauty queen, but caught himself. That's right, Sam thought. A ninja, a witch. You'll never know what I really am, and that's how I like it. Only I know who I am.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Mother Teresa, Greg Mortenson, and the rest of us

Right now, the book in my work purse is Three Cups of Tea - detailing Greg Mortenson's efforts to bring a little relief to Pakistan and Afghanistan. I'm at the part where he mentions his admiration for Mother Teresa. Since I recently read a biography on her, and even though both books are pretty good examples of hagiography, the reference prompted some thought about what it takes to be that dedicated to helping others. A lot of conviction, a fair amount of indifference to personal discomfort, an expansive love for humanity, a dash of arrogance, and maybe a little ignorance? I don't know. I wonder if it's something we can build in ourselves - or even if we should. I guess there are other examples of "mountain movers" who aren't so positive. This Washington Post story comes to mind - the self-help guru profiled certainly thought, and made other people think, that he could change lives. (My opinion is that the program he advocated was fairy dust - but I appreciate that others will disagree and respect that.)

My friend Jen is dealing with similar questions. In her case, living in Thailand near the Burmese border, she's wondering how far victims should go to protect themselves and what people on the outside should do about it.

I have no conclusions here, just musings. In my own case, my inclination is to say I should stick to my strengths - which don't include mountain moving, but might include writing moving stories and telling the truth at my job (which is what they pay me to do). But is that just a cop out?

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Book Recommendation: The Heretic's Daughter

Once I've decided to read a book - whether based on a recommendation, the back of the book, or a review - I make a point not to read the book jacket synopsis again. Quite often, those synopsis reveal plot points that, while compelling to a potential buyer and useful in creating curiosity, often don't come until late in the book. So, that said, I will not reveal to you what the back of The Heretic's Daughter spoils (as does the Amazon summary). I will say that it's an excellent story and one worth reading. The book relates the story of Sarah, a young colonialist living near Salem, Massachusetts, whose family gets caught in the fear and hatred spawned by the infamous witch trials. Two major themes undergird the book - mother-daughter relationships and the meaning of honesty, and watching them unfold is one of the book's greatest pleasures. The author brings to life the rough, dirty hands and the uncertain community ties of agrarian colonial life, making the past attainable to a modern reader without too much anacronistic sentiment. Overall, a compelling and thoughtful read.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Ignorance, Part 2

Continued from Part 1.

We are all shades, waiting for the bus, limited versions of ourselves. I hang behind, he does not notice me, for why should me? He boards the bus, so do I, it is all very easy.
The bus ferries us – to the world of the living, is it? – across the city, beyond where grit is glamorous and into where it is simply a fact of life, not an accessory but a uniform. We rumble over potholes, across a cavernous overpass. People descend from the bus, some of them trudging, some bouncing as they near home. A low brick apartment complex approaches outside the bus, halts by my window and a number of riders descend. So does the violin player, so do I.
I follow twenty feet behind him, no attempt to dissimulate, just walking. He does not turn around, I am nothing to him, no threat.
He enters the building, I cannot follow. A light on the ground floor illuminates a square window. I approach. Behind the iron bars, I can see. I observe certainly that he can see. His eyes, walnut brown, drink in his surroundings. An old woman hunched in an armchair, flashes of television colors muted on her wrinkled face. He kisses her cheek, she pats his arm. He moves to another room, I follow, the dark night silent behind me, the rooms in front of me delicately humming. A younger woman, wife perhaps, with pendulous breasts and thin brown hair pulled back reaches down to pull a chicken from the oven. I want some, so does he, he pokes a fork at it. Dirty dishes peek above the edge of the sink, trying to stage an escape from their pit.
No children that I can see, just the three of them. A shadow moves – perhaps a cat, perhaps the television’s dreams. A carved clock sits on a shelf opposite my window, I think it tells the right time, but I cannot see that far very well. It looks cheap, plywood shapes and laminate stickers. I wonder why he has it, the violinist.
Disappointed, I turn away from the windows and walk through the stiff grass back to the bus stop. I hope there is a bus back to the city. As I wait, I consider my failure.
A bus does come, eventually, and I am grateful, aching from standing. I return to the city, and it occurs to me that I have a chance to do it all over. Not to follow the violinist again, reenacting my selfish curiosity, but to discover what I was looking for. And the answer lies, as the violinist probably could have told me, in not looking, in closing my eyes. The next time I ascend the escalator, accompanied by the violinist’s hard-earned notes, I know I will close my eyes, even if briefly, and hear just the music. I will see the man as he presents himself, no need to search, to judge. There is the music, and that is all I need to know.

Ignorance, Part 1

At times, walking up the long escalator from the subway, I have to resist the powerful urge to look behind me. There is a clock at the bottom, but if I crane my neck around while still walking forward, I know vertigo and injury will result. (Pausing is not an option – you know the city, always forward.) So, I walk up, suffocating the urge, ascending, pulling my ignorance behind me. These times I feel like Orpheus, resisting temptation in exchange for fulfillment at the surface.
There is often, like with Orpheus, a mournful melody to accompany me but, unlike Orpheus, I am not the player. Instead, the shimmering, slightly off-tone garlands of music falling down the escalator come from a street musician. When I arrive in the sunlight, I will see him, large bottom overflowing his tiny perch (a bucket?), his dark, rough hands cradling the small violin. His eyes closed, always. I think it was the eyes that caught my attention.
When I reach ground level, my test concluded, I can end the curiosity. Out of the purse comes my cell phone. Time known.
I have imagined that once I will emerge, extract the phone, and there will be no time. Orpheus, unaccountably obedient, turns around and there is no Eurydice. If there is no time, I suppose the skies will be grey, one lonely note from the violin will hang on the air, and Einstein will have been wrong. (What was his ignorance, trailing behind him as he ascended?)
Naturally, that doesn’t happen. But subterranean escape after escape, the music, flimsy as it is, has enchanted me. As I often do, this day I put a dollar in the violin case, worn red velvet and quarters with a 20 for show. Then I go and sit where time has stopped, or at least made us invisible. A park with peeling benches and indifferent pigeons milling on the bald turf. I sit and wait, resolved, invisible behind the violin player. I cannot see if he opens his eyes but I believe he does not, no more than a peek at least. When the commuter exodus ebbs and the clouded sky is lit only with our own reflected luminance, he rests the violin on his wide lap, empties his earnings into a plastic baggie, zips it up, and puts everything away. The bucket – I can see it is a bucket now, for he has stood – is flipped and turned into a suitcase. He walks off. I follow him.

The story is continued in Part 2.

Monday, September 21, 2009

A Man's Question

She lay in bed thinking about the man she had seen that morning. No, not like that. This man was the type she could ID a block away - pacing, patrolling a small piece of the sidewalk as if he owned it, approaching all who passed by. He was clean enough, with his shirt tucked in and his pants still khaki-colored, but she could tell what he wanted. Sure enough, as she approached him, he turned from his previous defeat and addressed her. His tongue was heavy, laboring over the words, but his delivery was nonetheless quick and confident. "Excuse me missus sir Good morning Good evening Could you spare a dollar?" She tried to catch his eye, smile, to recognize him as human even though she wasn't going to spare a dollar, but he was intent on finishing his sentence, and didn't meet her eye. Then she had left his turf and it was over.

On the way back, laden with groceries, she saw him still pacing the same few feet of sidewalk, still addressing passers-by. He was asking a man headed the other way as she passed; she quickened her pace and managed to elude him before he could turn to query her.

That night, her thoughts surprisingly wandered back to that man and his sidewalk as she lay in bed, sleep evasive. She wondered if anyone had spared him a dollar, had been willing to break the fourth wall. I should have bought him a coffee, she thought, visualizing the coffee shop just steps beyond the man. Dammit.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Through the Inches

She responded by instinct, naturally, when her body gave her those new, unexpected sensations. Heavy, focused, the young cat sought out the perfect corner. Somewhere quiet, dark, safe. She could not have explained why, and if she could have felt surprise at the sight of the kittens she would have, but she accepted it all with equanimity. It was instead the closure of the entrance, the theft of sunlight and fresh air that shocked her.

She had been so absorbed with her three new lives, blind, mewing and heart-wrenching, that she had not even noticed that the path by which she had entered her refuge was now closed. It was only when her body ached with hunger, when she was forced to leave her innocent, defenseless charges, that she realized. Anxious, she paced the perimeter of her space. It was large, but closed. Had she been human, she would have realized that the garage door had been closed, with only two inches of space remaining, leaving her in a concrete cube, without escape.

She hoped for mice - not rats, they might prey on her babies before she could prey upon them - but none entered. Soon, hunger terrorized her. Desperate, she cried out, sticking her nose out through the tiny bit of space that remained to her, her only reminder that the real, open, free world still existed. Food, release, help, she cried. Her belly, her pleading babies, drove her to distraction.

As she cried, a warm smell of meat, flesh and fat and blood, crept towards her. Then, miraculously, the meat itself appeared, slipped through the crack, glowing in the remaining sunlight. She snatched it and ran away, back to her nest in the corner.

But the meat only held her for a short time. Soon she was starving again, her kittens larger, their eyes open and looking to her for food. On black paws, she crept around the space again. No mice, no nothing. Hunger drove her, she cried. She cried and cried. The light disappeared, then, after the cool night, reappeared. Still she cried.

Inexplicably, the meat came again. She snatched it away, glimpsing bare fingertips and hearing whispers in foreign, human tones. Her hunger satiated, she calmed.

When the sunlight next returned, a rattling cacophony came with it. The cat mother blinked, startled, as the bright day slowly invaded her space. The door was opening.

She was too astonished to do anything for a moment. A man walked in, his face widening in surprise as he saw her. She cringed, waiting for the violence. He bent down.

And cooed. If she could have understood, she would have known he said, "Oh, aren't you darling! So sweet. Maria, come look at these kittens!"

He thrust a weathered, darkened hand at her. The cat laid back her ears, but was too tired, and too hopeful, to do anything more. She remembered the meat, proffered by similar hands, though smaller. He caressed her head.

"There there. We'll take care of you my love. Maria, can you get a box, blanket? We've got to move these kitties to somewhere better." He ran his hand down the cat's black fur, and extended a heavy finger to stroke the grey head of one of her kittens. "We'll take care of you," he promised.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

After the Ride

He stomped into the room, his plate armor groaning and clanking. The metal rested under a thick coat of dust, residue from a day's fighting. Lucinda watched him as she reclined on the bed. Richard paced and cursed, glancing up occasionally at her.

"That is fundamentally irreconcilable," he announced.

"You've had too much of that mead," she observed. "Mary is at it again, pouring you too much."

"Curses, Lucinda, you're not listening!" Richard yelled. He pulled his sword from the sheath at his hip. It did not emerge easily, seeming to grasp at the inside of the sheath. "I am telling you, the fool's claim is irreconcilable!"

"Why is that? It is entirely possible he had made his plans first. Just because the records -"

"NO!" He bellowed. He grabbed the sword hilt in both hands and drove the weapon into the bed. Lucinda raised an eyebrow as she watched, and marveled that he was able to push the blade through the fabric and avoid the metal springs.

"Listen, Richard. You are going too far with this. Look at yourself. Get out of that ridiculous RenFest gear, drink some water, sober up, and we'll call the club. Just because Dave says he booked the gig before you had a chance doesn't mean he's lying."

Richard glared at her. "You never believe me. You're just trying to keep me from succeeding."

"You know that's not true," she retorted. "I drove you to the Renaissance thing today, paid for you to rent that horse even! How can you accuse me of not being supportive? So I don't want you to quit your day job for your two fantasy jobs. Not yet at least. There's nothing wrong with that. I know you'll get there eventually," she softened her tone. "Whether it's knocking guys off their block every day in front of a movie camera or signing with a major label with the band, I know you'll get there. You just have to enjoy the ride."

Richard collapsed onto the bed, the weight of his armor sagging the mattress, which pulled his sword into a painful angle. Like a splinter sticking out from his hand.

"Ok. Can you help me get these damn boots off?"

Monday, September 14, 2009

A Note - no really, just a note

Not fiction!

... But I'm hoping to add a number more of fiction posts. This writing and posting is good practice for me but, I can't tell how good (or not) the practice is without reader reaction. Therefore, in case you're reading this and happen to have any thoughts (no really, any at all) about my work, I welcome your comments. I'm open to feedback as well as all your gushing, glowing, overwhelming praise. So, please help me feel like I'm not mumbling alone to myself in a dark damp corner of the internet basement, and let me know what you think!

Monday, August 31, 2009

A game

Warning: This is not a happy story. Sorry Gary.

"Let's check out this house," I suggest, drawn to the bright colors rippled by curling, peeling paint. It is the largest house on the dilapidated street, and I see no reason not to explore. My friend shrugs.

We walk up the front steps and pull open the tattered screen door, screen hanging loose like peeling flesh, just as you would expect. The hallway is dark, musty, but not as dirty as one might have thought. I walk on the boards, confident they will not fall in.

"Not bad," I say, turning around to my friend. He is sillouetted by the bright, diffused light outside. I see two other sillouettes move behind him, flanking, blocking the doorway. I suck in my breath.

"Perfect," says one of the shapes, a woman. My friend spins around, I'm sorry I couldn't warn him.

"We needed two more," says the other, a young man. "So glad you could join us. Did Javier send you?"

"Javier? I don't know a Javier," I reply, my heart slowing as I think I see a way out of this. "We just wandered in. But we'll be going now."

I can see the woman shake her head, though I can't see the features of her face, backlit as she is.

"No, we need two more players. You'll have to come with us. Follow him."

"But," I start to protest.

"Follow him," she growls. My friend hops away from her, and follows the young man, who has opened a door and is walking downstairs. Lost, I do the same.

The basement is lit with yellow light, eminating from a few camp lanterns. In a corner, eight people sit in a circle, some reclining on pillows. The yellow light leaves strange shadows on their faces. The woman we encountered above shuts the door behind me, and, with a firm hand on the small of my back, guides me to take a seat. The room smells sharp, not the dull moist basement smell I would expect, but a pointed, harsh smell, like an auto repair shop. Like metal on metal, I decide as a sit. My friend is sitting across from me, and we exchange wide, nervous glances.

A man sits to my right, ramrod straight and solemn. He pushes his shaggy brown hair from his eyes and surveys the group.

"I think you know the rules," he begins, but then his eyes fall upon my friend and I. "Ah, newcomers. Well, a review is in order then. It's very simple. Keep your cards facedown. Play a card by turning it over in the center. Do what the card says. If it's a zero, you die. That's it."

I stare at him, certain he's joking. Mistaken. Something I've imagined. He narrows his eyes at me. He's fairly young, in his thirties probably. He looks strong under his thin grey t-shirt.

"I'm not dealt in to this game," I try to explain. "I think we should go."

The man lifts an eyebrow. "Oh, but you are," he says, gesturing to my side. I see a messy pile of cards, about 10, with a faded, gold diamond pattern on the back. "You are in," he intones. A sick smile spreads across his face. "And it's your turn."

Trembling, I pick up a card and throw it into the center, flipped to reveal its underbelly. The card was originally blank, without spades or hearts, and had a few words written in black marker. Sighing with relief, I don't even read the words. Not a zero. The next person goes, so I assume there is nothing for me to do.

The card throwing circles around, silently. The leader laughs, often before each card is revealed. I wonder if he knows, from the top sides, what the bottom says. No zeros. He smiles, relishing the tension. The rest of the faces are expressionless, captivated, perhaps, by the game. I glance at my friend. I can see the vein in his neck throbbing, casting a tiny undulating shadow as fear fills him.

"I need to use the bathroom," I venture. To my surprise, the leader nods and flicks a hand.

"That way," he mutters, pointing back up the stairs. My back is to the wall, facing the stairs, so I step across the circle. My friend gets up to follow me. No one objects, and we walk to the doorway. I glance back, as I open the door to the stairs, and I see someone else getting up. I hurry to open the door, and walk up as quietly as possible. At the top, behind my friend, I see two more people following us, at the bottom. I can tell, from the angry look in their eyes, that they are not hoping to use the bathroom as well.

The front door is shut, bolted and locked with a key, from the inside. I turn and run down the hall. My friend follows, I think. The house creaks and betrays my movements, and I can hear little else.

There are no exits. I see no large windows, no back doors. Panicking, I throw open a door. It leads to a closet of a bathroom. Above the toilet, about 10 feet from the ground, is a window.

I jump onto the toilet and struggle to force the window open from below, barely reaching. It budges and, as I pull myself up to the ledge, I force it open further. I can slide myself out on my stomach, sliding sliding. The cool outdoor air kisses my cheek, a blessing. I am about to pull my hips through when I feel someone grab my ankles. They pull, I pull. I'm slipping back through the window, freedom evaporating. Suddenly, the grip weakens. I scramble to pull myself out, and tumble down onto the grass. It hurts, it was a hard, jarring fall, but I hardly notice. I'm out. I run.

I run and run. No sign of my friend, and my stomach churns for him. But still I run. I'll find help. Surely there is a house that is occupied, somewhere here.

The dilapidated street streches into countryside, and I run alongside the road. I see a house ahead, a prim wood frame house, and I allow myself to slow. No one is following, I can let myself breathe.

I knock on the door, a man answers. Wearing a worn sportscoat and jeans, he looks friendly. I try to explain. He ushers me in, not believing me, but solicitious.

"Now, now, just sit here and rest a moment." He shows me a tidy, bright sitting room, facing the street. "No one's chasing you, I'm sure."

I don't believe him, I look outside. Empty, green meadows. But I still don't believe him. My friend isn't with me, I didn't make this up.

"Now where were you again?" he asks.

I look out the window again, and then I see them. The messy-haired man, confidently leading a column. I see my friend, and sigh, for some small relief. But the woman, the woman who first found us, she is not there. Dead, I think, although I could not justify it.

"They're here," I breathe to my host as the column turns towards the house. I jump up, hesitate like a scared rabbit, and run. Hide, hide, is all I can think. Like a child, I run to hide in the first room I can find. A workroom, with a large table. A blanket underneath. Stupid, scared, I throw myself under the table and try to hide my bulk with the blanket.

Footsteps come soon.

"Don't be silly, my pet," the leader's voice chides. "You are a part of the game now, you cannot leave before we've finished playing."

His large boots stop in front of the table. Without hesitating, without even a shred of consideration for my hiding place, he reaches down to drag me out. "There we are," he says, standing me up. I see the rest of the group standing behind him. Blank-faced, except my friend. Who looks scared. Seeing his face, my lungs clench up and my head pounds. I flail, and grab something hard and cold on the work table. In a rush, I lunge at the smiling man's throat.

The razor blade knife cuts the side of his throat. I shudder, feeling the resistance of his skin, his vein, and then the give of it before the blade. Taking advantage of his surprise, I grab his arms from behind. He is larger, but I have a knife against his throat. Half of his neck is becoming slippery with blood.

"We have to end this," I say, not knowing what I'm saying, to the gathered group. "This is a madness he drives us to, to sacrifice ourselves."

"I am not the killed," he whispers. "You are. Quit this foolishness." From behind him, my face in his blood and his straw-dry hair, I can hear the power in his voice, whisper not withstanding. I look over his shoulder and plead.

One of the group grabs the razor blade from my hand. I gasp, and stagger backwards. Fear clouds my vision. But no cut comes. A moment later, I see the leader staring down at his bloody hands. The razor blade is passed to another, and another stroke comes.

"We must all kill him," someone says. "So no one is guilty."

I hardly follow what happens, so much movement, but so little sound. Finally, I see the man stumble back into the hall, turning for the first time to face me. He is a torrent of blood, agony.

"Zero," he utters, and collapses. Someone, quicker thinking than I, grabs him and pulls him towards the back of the house. We follow. The body thumps down the back door steps, not leaving too much blood. A creek flows swiftly, deeply to the right of the house. Two people drag the body across the long grass and throw it in. The water rushes to meet its burden, to carry it away. We shuffle through the grass, exhausted. Free. Or perhaps not.

Saturday, August 29, 2009


He found it strange, later, that so much happiness could spring from that irritated, put-out moment. For, after all, to sit somewhere is to claim it, to call it yours, even temporarily. "That is my seat," one says. Or, "Oh, am I sitting in your seat?" It is impossible to have a seat if it is someone else's - if so, it cannot be yours. So, naturally, his irritation upon walking out of his rowhouse - his house, mind you - and finding her sitting upon his low retaining wall.

"Can I help you?" He asked, the irritation seeping from his voice. Or so he hoped.

"I'm just resting," she smiled. "Thank you." She made no movement, except to recross her legs. They made the cloth of her skirt flow, heavy liquid cascading down from the wall.

Her gratitude was genuine, if presumptuous, and he paused in his indignation for a moment.

"Well," he said, and then faltered, uncertain what he had intended.

"This is a beautiful view you have," she added, flicking her wrist towards the other side of the street. A hill sloped down across from them, empty of houses, showing lush green trees below. "You are fortunate."

He followed her eyes, and nodded. Fortunate, yes, he thought, he knew, though it was easy to forget. Startled, he sat next to her to look at it.

"You don't mind?" he asked.

She laughed. "It's your wall."

Monday, May 4, 2009

The Other Truth, Part 3

Continued from Part 2.

She felt a bright wave of cold and then the humid air of the jungle. She had never seen a jungle, no more than the scrawny trees that struggled to grow at the edge of the city's polluted river, but her heart recognized it nonetheless.

"Let me see your hand," the boy commanded gently. She offered him her upturned palm. "No, not like that," he scolded. "Fairytale nonsense, palm reading." He flipped her hand over, and traced his fingers across the faint shadows of veins. "The trees, they echo their lives here. Their power sings here, in your hands. We will teach you to learn it."


He nodded, and led her past a curtain of vines. Two other teenage boys crouched around a small fire, and a girl her own age, not yet into her teens, stood behind them. The fire was unlike any she had seen, leaping up from the ground without leaving scorched black behind. The flames danced playfully in front of the boys' hands.

"Shamaan," her guide said, in greeting to the others. "I bring you Ulethe."

"Ulethe?" she asked. "But that's not-"

"Your name? Yes, it is. Perhaps you didn't know it, but it rises from your skin like your scent. This is one of the things you will learn."

The boys stood to greet her, and the girl behind them inclined her head in a small bow.

"I am Serij," her guide explained. "These are Ret, Veleu," he pointed at the boys. "And Kiuxo." The girl nodded again.

"Ulethe," she repeated to herself. "That's me?"

"Absolutely. You will learn to recognize this as the truth, but for now I hope you will trust me. Come, have some water." Serij offered her a hollowed gourd, with crystal water. She drank deeply.

The Other Truth, Part 2

Continued from Part 1.

The weekend hours spun past, filled with gossip and laughter and fresh-squeezed fruit juice in the heat. She did not think of the boy until she descended from the rickety bus and saw him sitting, wrapped over the plant.

"You would have a skill for it, you know," he said as she approached. He had not looked up, and she jumped at being addressed. "I can hear the jaguar in your blood."

"Are you crazy? Maybe you escaped from the hospital, eh?"

"Some people would say that. But I've escaped from nowhere. This is the prison." He looked up and around, grimacing. "Listen," he continued. "We have spun the song. Come here."

Stopped, she furrowed her brow in doubt.

"I will not hurt you. Look, I'll step away. Just come near."

He rose, revealing the plant for the first time. It had shed its yellow paint, and sprouted vivid purple flowers.

She hesitated, looked around, and then shuffled closer.

The flowers became transparent, wavering things constructed more of air than matter. A hum crept into her head, undulating in rhythm with the ephemeral flowers. Shocked, she stepped backwards.

"You see it then," the boy said flatly.

"Yes," she whispered.

"They did not teach you that in your school, did they."

"No. But I don't know what it is."

"What it is? It is too big to have a name, not properly. Some have tried to call it magic, but that is false. I prefer life, but I guess that could be vague."

She shook her head.

"Come with me," he said. "I can teach you much more."

"No, I ... school ..." she whispered, and hurried off.

She regretted it the rest of the day. All day, wedged into her hard desk at school, she thought of the boy and his wonders. I always wanted something to happen, something different, like the movies. I have to do this.

Rather than walking to the right outside her school to catch the bus home, she ran down the street to the left. As she hoped, the boy sat on the curb. The bright purple flower was nearly as large as his hand, and it breathed ribbons of blue smoke.

"Are you ready to leave now?" the boy asked.

"Absolutely. I don't care where we're going."

"That's good. Because if you had asked me, I could not explain."

He raised his hand to indicate for her to wait, and then he stood above the plant. He hummed, a deep crescendo, and the blue smoke grew with his voice. It snaked up from the blossom, out into the air, forming an arc. When it circled upon itself, it hardened, and the air inside shimmered.

"Let's go." He reached out his hand, and drew her into the circle.

Continue reading Part 3.

The Other Truth, Part 1

Every day, when she walked from her second bus down the four dirty blocks to school, she looked for it. To see it still there, still struggling and still alive, was a daily relief. She had first noticed the plant the week after the end of the rainy season, and the day after they painted the curb. The bright yellow paint was such a novelty that her eyes followed the stripe of the curb for her whole walk. And that was what made her notice it - a bloom of waxy green leaves thrusting out from a crack in the curb. It was a reminder of the jungle, the wild that had been subdued for their sprawling concrete and soot city. The curb painters had splashed half the plant with thick yellow.

She couldn't decide if the plant was a good sign, for in a way it represented the city's deterioration. But she found its tenacity a relief, nonetheless.

One day, a frown took root on her face as she approached the plant, which grew two blocks from the bus stop and just below the the speed limit sign that everyone ignored. Sitting on the curb, next to the plant, was a dirty teenage boy. His back curved into a bony half moon under his thin t-shirt, and he rested his elbows on his knees. The plant was hidden between them, caught between his legs. She thrust her lip out in a frowning pout and did not break her stride.

He was there again, in exactly the same pose, the next morning, and again the following day, a Friday. On that third day, she slowed, pondering him, wondering if he had chosen the plant as his anchor, or if it were a coincidence. She heard him whispering. Her feet dragged along the sidewalk.

"You, girl," he said without turning. "What do you want?"

"Me? Nothing," she said, startled, and quickened her steps to pass him.

"Have it your way. But don't worry. I won't hurt it. I want to help it."

"Help it?" She repeated. She paused, and looked around nervously. She knew always to be on the lookout for the strange, which could so easily become the violent.

"Of course. Help this 'rubber tree' sprout. The colonizer's name, of course, named only for its commodity, but it will do."

"Oh. How are you helping it?"

For the first time he turned to look at her. He had skin just a little darker than her own, with a broad flat nose and almond eyes that angled upwards, following his cheekbones. He was handsome, she admitted.

"Singing to it. You wouldn't understand. But I could change that."

"You're right, I don't. Listen, I have to get to school. I go home another way, so-"

"I know. I will see you another morning.

"You will be here Monday?"

"Is that how it goes? Any way, I will be here. We are spinning a spirit web, Inxitha and I, and it will take time."

She raised her eyebrows and walked on. A moment passed.

"I could teach you," he called softly to her back. She kept walking.

Continued at Part 2

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Journey

This one's for Gary.

Another one was ripe. The tree's branch uncurled, taking days to release the great bud ensconced inside. When the branch finally unfurled itself, the bud released and fell to the ground, rolling down the small hill. The bud rocked to a stop, settled in a mossy dip. For a long time it sat there, unmoving. Then, the outer shell cracked and split, falling open to reveal the snail. His bright blue shell glimmered, standing out like a gem against the green moss. He extracted his head and turned it from one side to another. He saw moss, which he knew to be moss, and he saw the massive tree behind him. His eyes swiveled back and forth, taking in the entire landscape. He saw no other blue gem snails, which he knew himself to be, and knew he ought to look for. The snail nodded to himself, accepting this information, and decided to inch his way forward, to explore.

After a long time, ages it seemed, the snail arrived at the edge of the world. He crept up to the edge, recognizing it from afar but wanting to see it, to experience the bliss of crouching upon the cusp of oblivion. He did so, and was amazed. Brown earth reached down below him, but beyond that he could not see anything except darkness. The sound of rushing, whispering air reached up to him. It called to him, begged him to merge himself with it. He shivered, and turned away. He made his way back.

The path he had taken previously was obscured, unrecognizable from the passage of time. The snail did not worry. He made his way as he could, sliding over moss and rotting leaves and bark. He met a moth, and passed a slug. He nodded at the slug and trudged on.

An ant, a massive ant, asked the snail for a ride. "I am traveling and could use some assistance," he explained. The snail pulled his eyestalks down into his shell as he thought. The ant was solitary, strange for an ant.

"Where are you going?" the snail asked.
"Ah, where," the ant replied. "To find something that makes me happy."
"That is a good thing to look for," the snail said. "I should like to look for the same thing. I have seen the edge of the world, and that did not make me happy. Should we search for the heart of the world?"
"You are an accommodating snail," the ant praised him. "I think we should search for the heart of the world."

The ant took his place on the snail's iridescent blue shell, and they commenced their slow journey together. They knew not to ask anyone where the heart of the world was, for they knew they would be the first to find it.

The snail crept along, and one day, as rain drizzled down upon them, he spotted a great cavern up ahead.

"I am certain that is the entrance to the heart of the world," he told the ant. The ant nodded, and the snail observed his agreement. Silently, they proceeded forward.

After a few cycles of light and darkness, they reached the cavern. It was dark inside, but they had no fear. They traveled and traveled, following the path into the heart of the world. The cave began to reverberate with a deep, contented sound. Even more confident, they continued. The air became warm, and all light was gone. The snail did not slow his pace, and the ant silently approved.

The first tickle was slight, almost imperceptible. Soon, more tickles followed, and eventually they became a warm, soft embrace, as the air around them thickened and welcomed them. A rumbling hum flowed around them. The snail and the ant had found the heart of the world, and they were happy. They smiled.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Story of an Artist in a Dirty Apartment

I don't vacuum very often, so yesterday, after long ignoring the accumulating filth to the best of my ability, I succumbed. I started with the carpet in the tiny closet I call my studio. Where I paint, crumple paper, cut fabric, and generally try to be creative. It didn't take long until the vacuum choked on something. I turned it off and sat down next to it. I would coach the vacuum to regurgitate whatever it had improperly swallowed, I thought. I found the end of a string, wrapped around the vacuum brush. That's easy, I determined with relief, and began to pull on it. The string was beautiful - thick and soft, made of shades of purple with gold strands interwoven. I watched with amazement as it spooled out from the vacuum. There was so much yarn, I laid it out in a circle around me. Pulling yarn, and piling circles upon circles around me. The yarn piled up. I smiled, enjoying the cocoon I was creating. More yarn, higher walls. Finally, it reached above my head. I pulled pile of extra yarn into my haven, and then tied a knot at the top. I found a needle in the carpet, and used the extra string to sew the walls of the cocoon into something a little more solid although, to be honest, they felt pretty sturdy already. Finally, I closed the bottom of my cocoon below me. I sighed with relief. A beautiful purple and gold pouch I'm in, I thought. What a lovely place to spend some time. I sat there, and thought purple and gold thoughts. Waterfalls, spirit gems, crumpled paper. Then, almost as if I had expected it, or invited it, something picked me up. This pleased me too. Such a lovely package as me in my purple and gold pouch should be picked up. Carried. I wondered idly where I was going. Perhaps to join a collection of pouches. That would be nice. I swung in the air for a long time. I could tell I had left the stale, stinky air of my apartment behind, and noticed a sweet, honeysuckle scent. As it should be. Now, I sway in the sweet breezes, happily ensconced in my cocoon, absent of physical needs. I can paint beautiful images in the air with my mind, and write these words for you. Perhaps it didn't start yesterday. Perhaps it was years, centuries. I don't know, I'm not waiting for anything. Just living in a world of inner beauty.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Valentine's Story, Part 2

This story is continued from a previous post.

The fourth day after Ranger’s new boss started was one of the few rainy days Bruni earned each year. Jessie was standing over the stove sprinkling cheese on a mac and cheese casserole when she saw Ranger’s green car pull into the driveway. She slid the casserole into the oven and glanced back at the car. She furrowed her brow as the clock behind her ticked away the seconds and no one emerged from the car. The rain ran in rivulets down the window pane, and she wondered if Ranger was hoping it would let up. She grabbed an umbrella and ran outside.
She opened the passenger-side door and leaned inside.
“Hey sweetie, I brought an umbrella out for you.”
He sat slouched in the seat, staring at his hands at his lap. She reached inside to brush her fingers against his thigh.
“You comin’ in?”
“Yeah. Not just yet though.”
“Oh,” she replied, startled. “Ok. Well, I’ll leave this here for you.”
She folded the umbrella and dropped it into the car before running back inside.
Thirty minutes later, Ranger came inside.
“You didn’t even use the umbrella, silly,” she said, brushing the water off his soft, brown hair.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I wasn’t thinking.”
“Don’t apologize,” she kissed him. “What’s wrong?”
He refused to say anymore, and spent the rest of the evening in silence.
It wasn’t until Saturday morning, as Jessie was heading out to work, that he opened up.
“Mitch, the new boss, you know? I don’t think he likes me.”
“That’s ridiculous, why would you say that?”
Ranger swiveled his foot on the ground, like he was putting out a cigarette.
“He told me my performance was sub-par and I was an ignorant red-neck.”
“He said that?” she exclaimed.
“Yeah. The red-neck thing was under his breath, but I know he said it.”
“Well, maybe he didn’t,” Jessie replied, hopefully. “Maybe you heard him wrong.”
Ranger glared at her.
“I know what I heard. So you think I’m dumb too?”
“You know that’s not what I meant. I was just hoping it’s not as bad as you thought.”
“I’m sure it is. I don’t know what I’m going to do. I can’t work with this guy.”
“You’re going to have to,” she said gently. “We need this job. Remember how hard it was to find it? And now, with the mortgage …” Her voice trailed off. Two and a half years of mortgage payments hadn’t made much of a dent in their debt, and the thought of all those zeros they still owed the bank made her nervous.
He exhaled, and his shoulders slumped. She hugged him and kissed his neck.
“I have to go, but let’s talk about this more when I get back.”
“Alright,” he said, and kissed her.
When she returned, exhausted, Ranger was absorbed in a crime drama on TV, with a bottle of beer in his hand. She didn’t want to disturb him, so she tiptoed up to bed.
As the weeks passed, Jessie’s husband spiraled deeper into his own personal misery. She could rarely get him to tell her what was wrong, as recounting it seemed to wound his pride even further. He drank more and spoke less, and seldom agreed to go out with the few friends they had made in Bruni. When she reassured him, he snapped, and when she caressed him, he pulled away. She didn’t know how to make him feel better, how to show him her love. Her heart ached.
And so, nearly three years after last seeing her mother, Jessie decided to write, pleading for help. Jessie’s mother was no stranger to marital difficulties – Jessie’s parents had nearly divorced when she was twelve, after three years of misunderstanding that rotted their relationship and led to screaming. But, to Jessie’s amazement, they reversed their trajectory and reconciled. Jessie wanted that secret, wanted the advice. And when she let herself admit it, she wanted her mother’s consolation. A hug scented with cloves and bread, that’s what her mother’s love was.
Her tears hit the paper before the ink did. She stopped thinking about what to write and just wrote. She sealed the letter without reading it, and ran it down to the mailbox.
When she came back inside, she saw Ranger sitting on the couch, watching TV. She walked behind him and ran her fingers through his hair. The TV was showing Forrest Gump, and the music surged through the quiet room. She leaned down to whisper in his ear.
“This is a little cheesier than your usual fare,” she said, kissing him on the cheek.
“I guess I’m feeling mushy,” he replied. He reached his arms over his head to hug her. Then he released her and reached for his beer.
“Do you feel like going out? Maybe have dinner at Chili’s?” she asked, hopeful and watching his profile.
He drank the entire bottle before answering.
“No. Thanks. I’m just going to watch this. You can go though.”
“No, that’s ok,” she sighed. “I’ll be upstairs if you need me, ok?”

Friday, February 13, 2009

Valentine's Story, Part 1

Her pen hung over the paper, suspended mid-air. She watched it, waiting for something to happen. Nothing. She grabbed the brown beer bottle and drank what little was left. She returned to the pen, making it dance swirls above the paper. But still, no words came.

The first line had been easy. “Dear Mom.” After that, she didn’t know how to begin. With a warm salutation? With a formal opening? Or to cut right to the chase – “I need you.”

It hadn’t been so difficult the first time.

“Dear Mom: I’m sorry to tell you this in an email. I’m sorry I left without saying good-bye. Don’t worry – I’m fine. I’m more than fine, I’m happy! Ecstatic! Ranger and I are married. We got married three nights ago, in Las Vegas. We drove there all the way from Charlotte, can you believe it? And now we’re headed out, looking for a small town that’s affordable where we can get a job and start a life. The land here is beautiful, Mom, and I can’t believe I’m seeing it with my soul mate. We drove all day yesterday, hair in the wind. Is this how you felt when you married Dad? I know you don’t approve of Ranger, but I hope you’ll give him a chance. He has a beautiful spirit. And now he’s your son-in-law. Write back, and when we find a place, you can come visit! Love, Jessie.”

She never heard a response, not to the email or to the letter she sent when they found their tiny rancher house in Bruni, Nevada. She had given her mother her address, and begged her to visit them. Her mother never wrote, and ignored her phone calls. After a year, Jessie gave up. Frustrated and angry at being rejected, she resolved to cut her mother out of her life in the same way her mother had eliminated her.

Life in Bruni was exhilarating, at first. She and Ranger had cooed over their tiny, charming house, and dreamt about landscaping and baby’s rooms. They joked that the possibilities were as wide as the horizons. Ranger got a job in the office of a small mining firm, and she waited tables in a family-run Italian restaurant down the street. The owner, a mostly-Irish woman named Shirley, welcomed Jessie with open arms. Jessie loved taking her tips and meager paycheck home, to her own house, and curling up on the couch in the arms of her own husband, resting her head on his firm shoulder. She watched Ranger come out of his shell, finding his own two feet in the absence of his father.

Visiting Ranger’s house in Charlotte had been unbearable. He was 23, living at home because his parents had forbidden him from going to college and relied upon him to help pay the rent. His father vacillated between states of drunkenness and rigid propriety, and berated Ranger at every opportunity. Jessie didn’t blame him for wanting to get away, to drive as far as possible. And she couldn’t let him go alone. It would have been like letting her own heart leap from her body and drive away. Painful and impossible. So they left, driving his old convertible towards his freedom, their unknown.

She told him that their love was like drinking hot chocolate – warm, sweet, and more comforting than anything. She knew it was silly, but she couldn't find better words. He laughed and tickled her.

“Ok, pudding,” he teased.

Then, Ranger got a new boss at his office. Jessie had visited the office once – it was a tiny place, just a few rooms in a three-story cement office building on the outskirts of Bruni. Ranger managed the sales contracts, and that Sunday he’d made love to Jessie on his cramped desk. The place felt like a fishbowl to her, and she wondered how he didn’t feel claustrophobic.

Continued at Part 2.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Brushing Away the Dirt, Part 2

This continues a story started in the previous post.

It started after Grandma died. I was 14 and I missed her a lot. She had always been quite the presence in our tiny home - sitting in that corner, sewing our ratty clothes, telling stories about devils or spirits, and cracking dirty jokes. Her husband had been gone some twenty years when I was born, and I think my birth gave her a new, comfortable role to fall into. Not a widow anymore, but a grandmother. We were tied together that way. And when she died, I missed her.

Our crowded house, so loud during the day, dipped into silence at night. A week after we buried Grandma, I crept out. Tiptoed past my brother's bed and through the shared living space. I cracked the light screen door open and slipped out into the warm night.

Although the street wasn't lit, the moon was bright and I easily ran along the side of the road. The cemetery was close and only a few cars flew past me, blazing headlights and screaming merengue.

You know, I've always loved our cemetery. Lush green and red leaves hug the graves, and it seemed like a fitting entrance to Paradise. I wondered how Grandma felt, and I hurried over to her new tombstone.

It was new but already it wasn't shiny. As usual, we'd had rain storms daily, and a few had brought down waves of soil from the cliffs above the graveyard. So her tombstone, like all the others, was dirty. What a shame, I thought. I pulled my nightshirt off my head and used it to wipe the stone clean. I'll admit, it was a bit of a thrill standing there bare-chested in the warm night.

I put my shirt back on and kneeled down to whisper to the gravestone. "I miss you Grandma," was all I could muster, both because I was a kid with not much of a way with words, and because I was trying not to cry. To distract myself, I looked at her name carved, not all that well I'll say, in the stone. The letters were still dirty and so, one by one, I traced my finger inside them, scooping out the grains of island dirt.

When I cleared the 's,' the last letter in her name, again I told my grandma how much I missed her. To my surprise, she answered back.

"Good lord child I've only been gone a week."

Friday, January 16, 2009

Brushing Away the Dirt, Part 1

My name is Maria. Named after the Virgin Mary, of course. She and I don't have much in common, but I like to think we share at least one thing. Mary, virgin mother of Jesus and wife in name - but not body - to Joseph, led a secret life. Her marriage was a sham, if a tender one, and her son was a mystery. She had a different understanding of God from every single one of her neighbors. She, a humble, poor woman, was the mother of God! Yet she couldn't say a thing to anyone. I'd bet even Joseph didn't know much of it, though maybe she whispered in the ear of the infant Jesus. I can't even imagine what that much secrecy felt like. A heavy blanket covering her body? A brick wall dividing her soul? I don't know.

Like Mary, I have a small secret life of my own. It couldn't be any other way, I think. Perhaps it's just the legacy of my name, but I think that everyone should have a secret life. It protects us, keeps some part of our self safe, clean from the scrutiny and insinuations of others. In our secret life, we know what we do is for ourselves, or maybe for God. Now, I don't deceive myself. The presence of a secret life by no means predicates goodness. What are murderers but those who live secret lives? I know the tragedy that such secret manifestation of self can wreck. But that isn't an argument against secret life. People come in all types, and anyone can distort beauty.

But enough philosophizing. It's not like me, usually. Only on this topic. I want to tell you about my secret life, but I can tell I'm delaying the action of turning it over, relinquishing it to the anarchy of others. Still I remind myself, I am about to die, and this secret life will soon be of little use to me. Maybe it will be of use to you, if as entertainment only. And where I come from, we live off entertainment. Sometimes there's not much more to go on.

Continue to Part 2.

Princess Nijma

Princess Nijma