Monday, April 27, 2009

The Trouble with 'Ol Mister

Mrs. Collins came to see Grandma this morning. I hid in the backyard, but the window was open so I could hear what they said. Seems ol’ Mister was hunting in her yard again. If she don’t want cats up in there, she oughtn’t put all them feeders and houses and whatnot out for the birds. That’s like setting up a smorgasbord in front of hungry folks, then telling them they can’t eat. Soon as you turn your back, that buffet’s gonna be stripped bare, and not one of them will feel bad for having a full belly.

It’d be one thing if those bird lures were hung high up where the cats couldn’t get at them, but Mrs. Collins don’t want to crane her neck to see the birds, so she hangs them at eye level. Well, eye level from where she sits in her chair most of the day. Come to think of it, this is the first time I’ve seen Mrs. Collins move. When I first got here, I thought she might’ve died sitting in that chair, and no one had noticed. She was there when I went to bed at night and there in the morning.

Okay, I don’t really get up in the morning when I’m on vacation. Grandma says a growing girl needs her rest. I sure wish I could live with her all the time. Ma says I only want that because I never had to live with Grandma. She swears if I was here all the time, I wouldn’t get so spoiled. Course, I don’t see it as being spoiled, just because Grandma makes the sorts of food I like and lets me spend hours reading without having to stop and do chores. Not that I don’t pull my weight. I spent half a day weeding her garden. Got the sunburn to prove it. But Grandma understands how you can’t set a book down because not knowing what comes next is so distracting you wouldn’t be good for anything anyway.

Oh, right. Mrs. Collins and the cat. She told Grandma that if she didn’t keep ol’ Mister inside, she’d call the animal control people to take him away. Grandma asked if Mrs. Collins was volunteering to chase the rabbits and squirrels from her garden the way ol’ Mister does. Well, Mrs. Collins didn’t take too well to that. She huffed and sputtered and called ol’ Mister a menace. Grandma said as how she reckoned that was his job, the same way a dog guards a farm yard. Then she asked if Mrs. Collins thought putting a bunch of raccoons in front of a farm dog wouldn’t have the same effect as putting bird feeders within reach of a barn cat. Mrs. Collins screeched about how it was different, since birds aren’t vermin; they’re beautiful, delicate creatures who don’t deserve to be slaughtered like that.

“How do they deserve to be slaughtered, then?” says Grandma.

I couldn’t help but laugh at that, especially since I could imagine Mrs. Collins turning all purple with outrage. I covered my mouth, though. Grandma doesn’t like it when I eavesdrop, even if it is the what most folks around here do. I swear if they didn’t gossip, they’d have nothing to say at all. Back home, you have to be really close to someone before you discuss their business in the wrong company. The way they do it here just doesn’t seem respectful.

While Mrs. Collins sniffed in outrage and tried to make Grandma change her way of thinking, I snuck off to find ol’ Mister. I figured there was no point in listening anymore. No one gets Grandma to change her mind, unless it was what she was gonna do anyway. Well, almost no one. I did manage to convince her that Russia wasn’t Russia anymore. I mean, it is, but it’s smaller, and there’s a bunch of little countries where it used to be huge. She knew about some of them, but she wouldn’t believe me about how many.

I had to go to the library and beg them to let me take home the volume of the encyclopedia with all the maps in it. They don’t like you to take out reference books, but the lady at the library knows Grandma, and she said I’d never win the argument if I didn’t have proof in hand. Not that it was an argument so much as a discussion. I showed Grandma the new map – and it was even out of date because Kosovo wasn’t a separate country yet – and Grandma said it seemed I knew a thing or two after all. Neither one of us mentioned that Kosovo wasn’t ever a part of Russia to begin with, because we figured Russia always sort of thought the Slavs and Slovaks and the rest of the people around there half-belonged to them anyway. Folks around here get a bit sensitive about stuff like that. As if you could tell a Czech from a Slovak and any of them from the Slavs once the lot of them got to America.

But back to the cat. I found ol’ Mister asleep in Mrs. Collins birdbath. You heard right. There wasn’t a drop of water in the thing, so I don’t know how she thought she was doing the birds any favors, seeing as how when it’s dry, it looks an awful lot like a platter. I don’t know if ol’ Mister had the blue plate special or not, but I wasn’t leaving him there for the old witch to pick up. I watched that movie when I was little, and I don’t care to see what a tornado looks like up close, even if it does take you to a magical land. Oz didn’t seem any stranger than Kansas, but that’s not saying much. I dropped ‘ol Mister in the garden, where he curled up, burped out one feather, and fell asleep.

Tomorrow, he gets a bell.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Blood Stone

Chimes tinkled as the door opened and was closed again. The soft shush of ballet slippers moved closer. The jeweler allowed himself a small smile but did not look up.

“Mr. Ormand?”

He set down his tools and rose. “You must be Juliana.”

“You expected me?” She sighed, the way only teenagers could. “Grandma.” Again, spoken with the weight of derision reserved for youth toward their elders.

He did not correct her assumption. “How may I help you?”

“I need to have a jewel set. Grandma insists it be done by tomorrow. I told her I can wait for my birthday present.”

“Ah, a gift. May I see the stone?”

As she placed it in his hand, the weight of familiarity settled over him. Dark red with a hint of brown, the cut hadn’t been replicated in over a hundred years. Longer. He didn’t dwell on that.

“How would you like it mounted?” He smiled at Juliana. She looked nothing like her mother, nor her grandmother in her youth. She’s the fourth. He wondered if he would remain steady enough to be the first in his line to see a fifth.

“Grandma says it has to be something I’ll wear all the time, so a bracelet is out. It’s too big for a stud, and besides, there isn’t another one.” Juliana looked up. “Unless you could cut it in two? That would be cool.”

He suppressed a shudder. “No, I don’t believe I would be able to do that.” No one could.

“Then I guess it’s a ring or a necklace.”

“That has been tradition for…” He stopped himself. “…jewels of this nature.”

She shrugged. “What do you suggest?”

He licked his lips. None of the others had asked. “Are you a Christian?”

“I was baptized, but I don’t go to church. I’d feel weird wearing a cross, if that’s what you’re getting at.”

“So you don’t have faith?” He knew he should not push, knew that he needed to.

She blushed. “Well… I do, but grandma doesn’t know about it.”

“And your mother?”

“My mom doesn’t know anything about me!” She took a shaky breath. “She left when I was small.”

“I did not mean to upset you.” He would have to tread carefully. “You said you have faith. Let’s work with that.”

Her jaw set as she looked up at him. “I’m Wiccan, okay? I doubt you know what that is.”

“I am well-versed in the symbols of most religions. I suspect your grandmother would dislike a pentacle. Perhaps something less obvious.” He sketched a flowing knot, three swirls moving out from the center.

“It’s a triskele.” Her fingers traced the lines of their own accord.

“I could make it fancier.”

“No! This is perfect.” She looked up at him. “Do you work in silver?”

“This stone should be set in gold.” He noted her frown and continued quickly. “White gold would work just as well as yellow. Silver would corrode the gem.” He prayed she believed the lie. He’d told so few in his life. Surely, he could be forgiven for one that served the greater good.

She placed the stone in the center of the drawing. “Yes. That’s what I want.”

“It will be done by your birthday.”

“You don’t have to rush.”

“When inspired, I will work through the night to see the result.”

“I’ll stop by tomorrow night, then.”

“If I know you’ll come straightaway, it will be ready when you get out of school.”

She smiled. “You’re the best, Mr. Ormand! Grandma was right to send me to you.”

She had no choice.

Juliana was out the door before he could respond aloud. He slipped the stone into its velvet pouch and returned to his workbench. The chimes rang again. He looked up to see if she’d forgotten something or changed her mind.

It was not Juliana.

He turned the page over and tucked the jewel into a box, pocketing the key. A small creature jumped onto the counter and glared at him. In all his years, he had yet to discover what sort of animal it was. His gaze moved past the creature, knowing what he would see. The young man by the door remained unchanged by time.

“Hiding the stone, Francois?” Rich laughter brought images of lush woods with pools of sparkling water. “I am hardly going to take it from you.” The boy tilted his head and smiled. “Though if I’d a mind to, you couldn’t stop me.”

“You cannot touch it.”

“Oh, I could touch it. I simply won’t.”

“And her?”

“Well, that all depends on whether or not she keeps her jewelry on like a good girl, doesn’t it?”

“Leave them be,” Francois pleaded. “It’s long done.”

“It is not yet done,” the young man said softly. “Had I a choice, it would have ended with Irina, as you well know. This is her doing, not mine.”

“She’s a century dead.”

“More.” The word struck like iron.

“Why take out your hatred on her descendants?”

The young man ran elegant fingers through dark auburn curls. A red jewel sparkled in his lone ring. “I do not hate them. I have befriended and protected each one. Loved them unconditionally. And I will go on loving them until one decides to love me back. That is my curse, laid by the first woman I loved, who could not find it in herself to return my affection yet refused to let me go. In all these years, you are the only one to have asked.” He turned away. “Juliana is made in Irina’s image.”

The creature jumped onto the young man's shoulder. He scooped it up and dropped it in his pocket. It gave an irritated squeak.

The young man turned to regard the jeweler. “If you think me evil, make the necklace so beautiful she can’t bear to take it off. I will feel my heart break again, unable to reach her, and when her daughter comes of age, it will begin anew.” He moved toward the door. “Teach your successor well, Francois. Love should not come because of defective work.”

The chimes played discord as the young man closed the door behind him.

Friday, April 17, 2009


Tires grinding on the driveway meant Ted was home. Sarah put the bread in the oven, set the timer, then washed the cutting board. She had it back in place before he could drop the fish on the counter. It was cod, of course. She’d expected to grow sick of it, but after ten years, it only tasted better, probably because he’d caught it, and if he was bringing some home, he’d had a good day on the boat.

“I’d kiss ya, but…”

“…you don’t want me to stink like you,” she finished for him. “I’ll collect your clothes while you shower. I’ll wait to start the washer.”

“You’re so good to me.” The sarcasm was almost genuine. She was good to him, and both of them knew it.

She peeked around the shower curtain, taking girlish delight in seeing him naked and wet. He flicked water at her, and she withdrew. By the time he came down, she had the fish cooking. He kissed her forehead and went to start the laundry.

She smiled at his back. Not many men like Ted in the world. She was glad she’d ignored those who’d said being a fisherman’s wife would be hell. There were moments of it, especially when the sea got rough and everyone went down to the pub to wait for the telephone call they hoped wouldn’t come. It was easier to be with people as scared as you and anyway, it was faster to get the news in one place than make a dozen or more calls.

Some years were worse than others, for both weather and catch. When it looked like things were getting too tight, she did temp work to keep them afloat. He always laughed when she put it that way. She could have worked all the time, but there was enough to do around the house, and she liked having things nice for him when he came home. Besides, spending time with lawyers should be limited to absolute necessity.

“Gee, what’s for dinner?” Ted bent down and wrapped his arms around her. She liked the way his breath tickled her ear.

“Something the cat dragged in.” She tilted her head to regard him. “He’s a mighty fine cat.”

He kissed her. She slapped at his wandering hands. “Set the table.”

“You set the table. I’ll open the wine.”

“What’s the occasion?”

“Tell you in a minute.” He gave her the crooked smile that had drawn her to him in the first place.

“I think there’s a white on the second shelf,” she called after him.

“That go with fish?” He laughed and emerged with the bottle. He handed her a glass and leaned against the counter, his tall frame seeming too big for the little kitchen. Then again, Ted was too big for most places. His body was still lean, but his personality filled the corners of a place.

“So, what’s the news?” She sipped her wine and waited. He always paused to build up tension before answering important questions.

“I got the loan.”

She squealed. “When?”

“Martin was at the dock, waiting for his boy to get done unloading. He figured there was no sense in making me wait until morning.”

Sarah wrapped her arms around her husband. For years, they’d set aside money. At first, it had nothing to do with the boat, but after seven years, they figured that they weren’t likely to have kids. Ignoring all the advice about doctors and treatments, they’d made plans for a different future. He’d worked hard for that boat, deserved it. Ted rocked her in his arms, radiating happiness.

“Jake Tulley was there when Martin told me.”

Sarah pulled away. “How’d that go?”

“Don’t think I’ve seen someone actually turn green with jealousy before.” Ted chuckled.

“Well, you did ruin his business when you left.”

“He ruined it himself by treating his crew like shit.”

“True.” The timer went off. Sarah let the bread cool while she finished cooking the fish and asparagus. She tried to feed them from her little garden as often as possible and had managed to do some bartering with the Greene sisters for fresh eggs. Small town life suited her in ways she’d never have believed.

They had just finished eating when the phone rang. They both tensed, then relaxed. No one was out, so the chances of it being bad news were slim. Sarah got up to answer while Ted cleared the table.

“Mrs. Richardson?” Sarah didn’t recognize the woman’s voice.


“I’m Maureen Stanton, from County Hospital. I’m sorry to be calling so late, but I just got out of surgery and found Dr. Banks’ note.”

Sarah paled. She’d been worried about a lump by her hip. When the doctor didn’t call, she figured it was nothing. Besides, it had gone away. “I haven’t heard from him.”

“Oh.” The pause was longer than any Ted could manage. “Perhaps he should speak with you first.”

“You called for a reason.” Sarah steeled herself for the news.

“Yes, well… we try to find out what sort of plans you have, so we can make arrangements.”

“So soon?”

“Just in case you want a midwife or a water birth or something.”

The world spun. “I… I… oh, god.” She burst into tears and dropped the phone.

Ted hung it up. “What is it?”

“Dr. Banks. Oh, hell.” Words wouldn’t come.

“Shit.” He took a deep breath. “Is it cancer?”

“No.” She swallowed hard. “I’m pregnant.”

He swore. She backed away from him, eyes narrowed.

“What’s wrong?”

“You’re pissed about this!”

“God, no! Just surprised. I was prepared for you to tell me you were dying!” He laughed.

“This isn’t funny.”

“Yes, babe, it is. We finally get what we wanted, all in one day.”

“But your boat…”

“Screw the boat.”

“No. You get the boat anyway. We’ll manage the rest. It’s what people do.”

“I love you.” He picked her up and carried her up the stairs. “Both of you.”

A Cut Above

Rich stood in the kitchen, shades pulled low in a futile attempt to avoid the bright light of morning. His shirt smelled of whisky, though he had no memory of wasting the amber liquid. A quick inventory of his parts uncovered no bruises, proof he hadn’t been the one to spew the bourbon. Matty would have punched him for that. His best friend knew how to leave an impressive mark. It was part of Matty’s job, if not his charm. Sometimes, he couldn’t shake the enforcer personality.

The coffee maker shrieked to let him know it had finished brewing. Most days, he used it as an alarm clock. Today, it worked like a drill. Hands shaking, he filled his cup. It was too hot. He sipped it anyway. His mouth tasted like a monkey’s asshole – or what he imagined that to be like. As far as he knew, none of their adventures with toxic chemistry had resulted in animal abuse. Someone would have taken pictures if they’d fallen that far.

“Close enough to the gutter,” he muttered. He needed a new hobby – one less likely to end in illness or arrest.

The thought brought him up short. He searched the pockets of his leather jacket. Empty. His jeans yielded nothing. He sighed with relief. No bail receipts. Considering the venue, that was impressive.

Matty should never have suggested they meet in a high-class place. All his money meant nothing to those folks. He and Matty weren’t even people to them. They were a momentary diversion at best. At worst, they were freaks and animals. Which, to be fair, described them pretty accurately.

“The thing is,” Matty had said, “some of these women get off on that. You know, walk on the wild side before heading back to the gated community. And how is that not jail for a spirited woman anyway, I ask you?” He was always on about stuff like that. Funny thing was, all of the women he spent time with genuinely cared about him. He said it was because he didn’t ask for anything. He sure accepted what they offered, though.

“There’s something to all that feminism stuff,” Matty had said. “Treat women like people and all. Makes sense. We’re all the same when it comes down to it.”

It was bullshit, of course. Not the part about treating women decent, just the crap about how everyone was the same. Rich snorted. They weren’t the same as those people in the hotel bar last night. Even the bartender had looked at them like they were something he’d thrown away, only to find his garbage had crawled up and sat on a stool to order a drink.

“Fuck them.” Rich stripped off his shirt and threw it toward the hamper. Almost made it, too.

His coffee cup empty, he began the second step to recovering from a night out with Matty. The hot shower washed away the worst of the night, and restored memory. Part of it, anyway. There was a girl with hair the color of sun through honey and the sweetest brown eyes. Rich hummed as he remembered her fingers on his arm, so delicate and fine, jewels flashing in the light. He’d hardly breathed when she laid a kiss on his cheek and told him to call her.

He blinked, then cursed when shampoo ran into his eyes. She’d given him her number, tiny print on the back of a business card. Where the hell had he put that? He rinsed, shut off the shower, and practically ran back to his room, a trail of wet footprints in his wake.

He found the card on his nightstand, one of the few places not covered with crap. He picked it up as if it was one of those artifacts he’d been shown as a kid. He really should have stayed in school. All his teachers said he was smart. Fat lot of good that did when your old man couldn’t even pay the mortgage, much less chip in for college.

She would be educated. All those women were. So, what the hell did she want with him?

He peered at the card and whispered her name. “Celia de Benneville.” It came out like music.

He was glad she’d left before they’d gotten truly drunk. Vague memories of being escorted from the club surfaced through his haze. Rich shoved them aside. That didn’t matter now. A society girl had given him her number. He ran his hand through his short-cropped, blond hair. Maybe she did it as a joke. He set the card down and got ready for work.

When the foreman called the break for lunch, Rich sat with the rest of the guys, feet dangling off a beam. He loved the view from up here. The money for this job didn’t hurt, either. For once in his life, he was flush. That was a damned good feeling. He wasn’t rich Matty, but he did okay for himself. If he saved enough, maybe he could even take a night class at the community college. Then he’d have something smart to say if he ever ran into Celia again.

He shook his head. I’m such a mook. He wasn’t going to call that girl. He put on his hard hat. This was what he was, who he was. It was good enough. He went back to finish the job, balancing precariously above the world.

When he came down at the end of the day, she was waiting for him, her perfect mouth curved in a smile. The other guys stopped and stared.

“How about a drink and dinner? We could see what happens after that.” She practically purred.

“No, thanks.”

She frowned, confused. “Why not?”

“Because I’m dirty, tired, and not inclined to be a performing monkey so you can piss off your parents or tell all your friends how you went slumming.” He left her there, mouth hanging open, and walked home, whistling the whole way.

Feathers of Spring

Feathers of Spring

He rolled in like the first hint of spring, stormy and raw but so full of potential I could almost taste the earth waking up. If there was anything of awkwardness about him, as he insists there was, I did not see it. The barest hint of light in the alcove kept him from being a shadow. Stray strands of sunshine lit the edges of his hair to a burnished gold.

Yes, I still say it was blond then, if only because it irks you so.

The whispers overheard brought my gaze back to him, where I might otherwise have moved on. Rebel. Rakehell (or words that mean much the same). Wild. A bit more interesting than the average boy, those descriptors, whether I gave them credence then or not. My curiosity does lead me down odd paths. More than once, I’ve come to the end of those and not liked what I found. I knew a little then – not much, not enough – which led me to contemplate not following my eyes for once. And then she pushed me, that mutual friend looking out for my safety.

“Stay away from him. He’s dangerous.” Such sincere concern for my well-being.

It had, of course, the exact opposite effect. I looked right at him, and was caught. He’s got a core of iron, like a planet, though he didn’t know it then and doesn’t believe it now. Either folks are drawn to him or find they can’t abide being too close. They’ll make all sorts of excuses for why that is, but it comes down to nature in the end. I was pulled in, sure as if I was his moon. Where he was, I came alive, maybe for the first time. I suppose everyone feels that way about their first true love.

Yes, I can admit it now. Laugh if you want. Lord knows we deserve to after all this time.

I spent as much time with him as the inconvenient expectations on a young woman allowed. My mother thought about killing me, and I dare say his wasn’t as sanguine as she seemed. Not that we cared about such things. Or propriety. Or the tell-tale signs of spending too long in the woods. Hiking shouldn’t have brought us back with such smiles. We weren’t as clever as we’d thought.

He brought me feathers and we attached them to braids in our hair. He gave me books of the sort that opened my eyes, fed my insatiable desire to know. Don’t know what it was I gave him, except myself. He soaked up the sun and handed it to me, the bright light of summer on his skin and hair, in his smile and eyes. Oh, those eyes. I lost myself in them. Folly, I know, but I didn’t then.

No, I don’t regret it, though I did for a while. “Time wounds all heels,” you say. I can’t help but think you have enough scars. I don’t need to lay open the ones you gave yourself on my behalf.

The trouble with spring is that it can’t last. It hides itself in the green of summer, but when the leaves are set to turn, it has to let go. And so did he. I knew it before he even spoke. The little world we explored wasn’t enough for him. He needed bigger skies, harder places to bend him to them. He’d thought the ocean sang to him, and maybe it did once, but he’s too much of the earth in him – and where there is coastline, there are too many people, too many cars, too many things to separate him from what he needs to be. He still can’t abide a city. No, he needed plains and mountains and the cry of things wilder than I.

Foolish children, we thought love was something you could hold onto. Came to find out it only stretches so far. Time, distance, changing seasons – all that pulling until the thread of love is so thin you can cut yourself with it. Lord, how we tried to stay tethered. Words by the thousands passed between us, written in moments of quiet contemplation, frantic loneliness, desperate hunger.

When we came face to face again, we found we were strangers. Still in love, but the meaning had changed. The frenzied kisses born of too much time alone couldn’t hold the truth at bay for long. We didn’t have the words to explain what we no longer had. We parted, still pretending, still dreaming of ways we might come together in time. Foolish children.

In the end, he broke my heart. And I let him. I’d taken too much of his steel into myself to do anything else but rail, never once considering that he’d broken his own heart, too. I didn’t know then that he’d made me stronger.

I marched off to the war that is growing up and never looked back to that girl I’d been. Somewhere in the fight to survive, I lost her entirely. I don’t regret what I became, the things I did. If my first love had never done anything but give me that taste for adventure, the willingness to take risks, I would still be grateful to him. Without that, I’d not have ended up as happy as I am.

There. I’ve said what I shouldn’t. I can see your smile, older now and a little weary with the burden of time and your own long journey.

But it wasn’t all he gave me. What sort of story would that be? Seasons have changed, come round to autumn, and when I looked up from the table where I spin my yarns, there he was, as full of life as ever, brimming with tales. He hands me the stars, holds me despite time and distance, makes me laugh, brings me home to who we were when we played with the world instead of carrying it with us. And I remember the taste of spring.