No Words

I study the photograph, pressing my fingers gently upon the flat shiny surface, willing it to tell me its story. Was this the aunt who used to part the heads of chickens from their bodies with a blow from a sharp and shiny axe? The aunt who delighted in telling my mother tales of the headless chicken zipping round the farmyard until she could catch it and suspend it, feet first, from the clothesline, while sightless eyes looked on in astonishment and beak jaws flapped in protest?

I flip the picture over.

No words are written there. Continue reading

One to Make a Crime

Even in sleep, the child isn’t at rest, not completely. The tiny fingers of Lilly’s left hand move as her grandmother cradles her, rocking gently, as if in time to some invisible music Lilly’s fidgeting hand conducts. “It’s not fair,” Bea whispers to her sister as Father Dale reaches beneath his robes to switch on his microphone.

“What’s not fair?” Betty frowns at her twin. Of the two sisters, she’s the proper one; the one given to matching gloves and clean refrigerators; the one who writes gracious thank you notes moments after she receives a gift.

“Setting down so many problems on the shoulders of an infant.” Continue reading

Winter in Canberra

Theresa stares at the windup clock, its fat convex belly reflecting the painting Dan had made just before he left for Canberra. Six seconds before 12:35. For her, lunchtime. For him, nearly breakfast the following day. 

Eighteen hours between Carbondale and Canberra.

She pictures him asleep on his belly, hands tucked beneath the pillow, his hair standing straight up.

“Let him go, Theresa.”

Continue reading

This Good and Gentle Earth

She whispers her secrets to the sand, digging beneath desiccated surfaces with a discarded scallop shell. She digs deep to where the sand has lost all independence. Here, each gleaming glass-like grain becomes one grey mass which she can extract by the handful.

She buries her feet. Pats the sand tight all around. Her toes feel mother ocean’s heartbeat, that ever-present pulse. That constant, nagging beat calling her wave children home.

Eventually, they must depart, evaporating one drop at a time, gathering into clouds, brothers and sisters merging and moving as one, going wherever the wind takes them. Continue reading

The Bells of St. Brigit’s

Tugging at that thin filament at the edges of my brain, leading me through the maze of old paths and connections, reintroducing me to myself and my life, like a baby glancing himself in a mirror, they ring.

My ears focus. My eyes touch darkness. I clear my rusted throat. “The bells of St. Brigit’s are calling tonight.”

She screams and drops a purple plate. “Dad’s back!” She rushes over the fragments of our shattered, scattered lives.

Blue tears leak from her eyes. Her sadness is scented with joy.

I close my eyes.

Retreat.

A moment of respite for my lovely wife.

Our lives but glance off the other’s now.

~

This was written for this week’s hundred-word Write on Edge prompt: “The bells of St. Brigit’s are calling tonight.”

I’ve been working with Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer, in which the author recommends we study a work one word, then one sentence, then one paragraph, et cetera, at a time, slowly building our understanding of an author’s writing. This morning, I spent way too much time diagramming this paragraph, the first paragraph in Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety: “Floating upward through a confusion of dreams and memory, curving like a trout through the rings of previous rings, I surface. My eyes open. I am awake.”

I love how Stegner goes quickly from dreamlike to matter-of-fact. I tried to copy that quality with this prompt.

Something Extraordinary

Louisa watched her mother pass the potatoes to her husband, a neat pat of butter softening into the top “Mom?”

“Yes?”

“My tooth.” Louisa grinned and revealed the bloody warrior in her palm.

Her stepfather rolled his eyes, helped himself to the pool of butter and a large portion of potatoes beneath. “Must you do that at the table?”

“Oh, let her alone, Charles.”

“Eleanor.” Louisa could taste the sharp menace in his voice. A warning her mother too-often ignored of late.

“What harm in a tooth?”

“Rinse your mouth, child.”

Louisa immediately rose and went to the lavatory. She sat on the toilet, admiring her prize: the soft crimson center, the long roots on the left side that hadn’t quite been ready to surrender; the rootless right side that had long ago given up their claim to her mouth. Continue reading

Legend’s Realities

“Welcome to the Place of Words,” Henry gestured to the small sign, nearly invisible unless you knew what you were looking for.

Britt squinted at the sign. “They should have called it the Place of Bugs.” She slapped a mosquito that had landed on her arm.

Henry walked up to a large oak. “They say a girl once came to this very tree and stood before it. As she watched, it birthed every word she’d ever said.”

Britt laughed. “Why would it do that?”

Henry shrugged. “She wished for it. She wanted to take back all her mean words.” Continue reading

Unspeaking Words Spoken

Lukos slammed from the cabin, the flames of the fire recoiling in response. Aeliana stared at the door, strong and permanent.

“Your tongue is sharp, daughter.” Bekka emerged from her bedroom, eyes wary.

Aeliana crossed her arms. “You never discouraged it.”

“Lukos is a good man.”

“He was wrong.”

You were wrong.”

Aeliana’s heart sank. “What shall I do?”

“Find Esther.”

“The diviner?”

“She knows the location of all of the words ever spake.”

“Nonsense.”

“Scribes tell of a magical place, rarely encountered, but tragic and beautiful.” Bekka gave her child a shove. “It is your only hope.”

For three days, Aeliana searched the woods, poking around abandoned cabins; looking beneath the footbridge cobbled together with magic; wandering beneath the jack pines where matsutakes grew. She found Esther curled in the depths of an ancient oak, her face as cracked and solid as the heart of the tree, so that the tree and the diviner seemed as one.

Esther woke immediately. “You seek the Place of Words.”

“How did you know?”

Esther unfurled herself. “What is your purpose?”

“We are allotted only a certain number of words in this life.”

“True.”

“I fear I’ve squandered mine.”

“We squander much of our lives.”

“I want to gather up my words; spend them more carefully.”

Esther began to walk, Aeliana following. “Words are the map of your life.”

“Words are dangerous.”

“Can be.” Esther allowed. “Bitter words. Honest words, when dishonesty would have been a kindness.” She fished among pine needles until she brought up a mushroom. “Words can be good.”

“If intended.”

“Hurts may be unintentionally given.”

“Deliberately as well.”

“You can spend your life studying on your words, looking for nuances and meaning.” Esther stopped. Choose wisely, my child,” she said before vanishing into the trees.

Aeliana peered. The words of her life lay before her, a cord serpentine and scaled. She gathered up the shimmering end, words last spoken with Esther. Further up, the cord was dull and black: Her argument with Lukos. Perhaps she could remove the dull parts…

The trees sighed deeply, the branches wept. A voice floated on the wind. “The cord cannot be broken. Take them all or none at all.

She’d take them all, then. She began to wrap the cord around her hand. Angry words. Kind words. Words reclaimed, set in store for future use, better use. The ball grew heavy. She set it on the ground and began rolling it, now left, now right, accumulating more words, unspeaking words spoken, rendering her past mute. Where she told Lukos of her love. The words she used to tell her mother about the night…She closed her eyes, remembering…

Aeliana sighed and began unrolling her words, spreading them upon the ground.

The jack pines sighed with relief and the wind carried Esther’s laughter.

Tomorrow, she would go to Lukos and speak proper words, words that would be added to her cord at the Place of Words, words that would shimmer and gleam with promise and hope.

This was written for this week’s Write on Edge prompt, a combination of a picture and this quote:

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”~ L. P. Hartley: The Go-Between (1953)

Tasting the Sun

Miles Snyder clicks on the email and frowns. “Sorry, Milo, but we need you in town over Christmas. Business is booming!” Miles sighs and closes the email. Shit.Being in town over the holidays means being in town for the company party.
Miles hates parties, hates having to blah blah blah his way through the buffet line, trying to recall the names of spouses, picking up a little of this and a little of that with dainty silver tongs, hoping to God he doesn’t spill something or that his entire plate doesn’t tip over with the weight of the pretty little hors d’oeuvres balanced thereon: Greasy olives. Cubes of cheese impaled upon frilled toothpicks. Pigs in a blanket. Stale croissants wrapped around thick slices of ham, a disgrace, he thinks, to the simple elegance of the croissant.
His mouth waters, as he recalls the trip he made to Paris, right after college. The hostels. The melamine bowls full of tepid cocoa. Crusty bread and marmalade. Apricots and coffee. Croissants that melted in his mouth.
Paris. Three months of good food, good wine and good painting.
He turns his attention to the spreadsheet on the monitor. But he can’t deny that it’s there: While he lines up numbers in a column, arranging them just so, getting them to agree to work together and paint a flattering, if not entirely accurate, picture of the company, it is there, in the background, thrumming: The blues and the oranges. The pinks and those lovely, lovely yellows. Miles loves color. Miles loves paint.
He gets along moderately well with numbers. But he’s never actually tasted one.

When Miles was a child, he ate a yellow crayon.
His mother had slapped him before taking him to the local vet, the hospital being too far a trip. Besides, his mother was out of gas.
“Leave us,” Dr. Jones said, tacking on a gentle but undeserved, “please,” as an afterthought. His mother sighed and glared and, finally, stomped from the room, leaving the door open a crack.
The doctor sat Miles upon the examination table. Miles studied a ball of cat fur. “Am I going to die?”
Doctor Jones laughed gently. “I think you’ll make it. But tell me, Miles. Why did you eat a crayon?”
“I wanted to taste the sun.” To this day, Miles cannot look at the rays of the sun without recalling the waxy taste of crayon between his teeth.
The doctor’s eyes crinkled. “You are a poet, Miles.”
“I’m an artist.”
“That too.” The doctor smiled. “Don’t ever let them take that from you.”
But he had, hadn’t he?
The teachers said he wasn’t talented enough. Miles believed them.
He re-opens his email and hits reply. “I quit,” he types quickly before his mind realizes what his fingers are up to. Then he adds, “Merry Christmas.” He hits sends and searches for the cheapest flight to Paris.
He loves the intimacy of Paris.
He looks out the window and tastes the sun.
This was written in response to two prompts, one from Today’s Author, the other from Write on Edge.

Missing

Stuart watches a boy with spiked-up hair enter the gallery with his parents. The father has a Nikon hanging from his neck. The mother carries an iPad. They arrange the boy in front of a suit of armor and snap pictures. As the father lowers his camera, the boy releases his pose. They study his image as they leave the gallery.
The world, Stuart thinks, perpetually posing for itself.
He listens to the banalities surrounding him. People striving so hard to sound intelligent to themselves and each other, walking past without acknowledging him. He tells himself he likes the invisibility.
Snippets of conversation weave around him like cigarette smoke.
“These big museums just bring in big artists…They don’t want to invest in small time…”
“When I lived in Munich in ’86…”
A puffed-up man reeking of mothballs queries his wife: “When does life become art?”
He hears a snicker and turns to his right. A beautiful woman stands there. Gorgeous red hair; bright green eyes; petite. He reaches for his crutches and pushes himself up: He doesn’t want to waste her time.
He is surprised when she doesn’t move. Normally, when he stands; when he reveals the part of himself that is missing, people quickly discard him. “When I was a boy, I dreamed of war.”
She nods and puts a cigarette into her mouth.
“Then I barely lived through it and the sheen of war fell away.”
“Why do you guard this room?”
“It’s the one they gave me.” He eyes her. “I’ve heard the museum staff aren’t very bright.”
She laughs and her eyes are merry.
“I wonder,” Stuart says, surprising himself, for when he lost his leg, he lost the easy confidence he used to possess, “if, a hundred years from now, the shattered remains of my leg will be on display in this museum. ” He paints an imaginary marquee in the air. “Effects of modern war.”
She takes a drag on the cigarette.
“Works better if you light it,” he says.
“I’m trying to quit. Besides, the guard will kick me out.”
He laughs. “Stress?”
“Oh, yeah.”
“The job?”
“You could say that.”
“Where do you work?”
“Here.”
“Oh, yeah?” He is pleased. “You new?”
“I’ve been here four years.”
“I’ve never seen you until today.”
“I’m the director.” She meets his eye and gives a laugh. “I’m holed up in my office most of the day.”
“I guess that means I’m fired.”
“No.” She extends a hand. “My name’s Josie.”
“Stuart,” he says.
“I know who you are.” She feels herself blush.
A girl with oversized sunglasses walks in, nodding her head to the music being pumped into her ears. A woman sits on a bench and promptly falls asleep.
“God this is boring,” Josie says when the museum closes. She smiles. “Join me for dinner?”
And Stuart’s life suddenly feels beautiful and new.
This piece, part of a larger story, was posted for this week’s Write on Edge link.