OSI: “Rescue”

I’m once again participating in the poetry fun over at One Single Impression. If you enjoy poems and awesomeness of various stripes, why not pay them a visit?

This week, the prompt is “Allow,” a verb that affects a lot of us in very different ways.  For me, understanding that a life without risk is a life without reward was an uphill battle. By (slowly) learning to relax my guard, I’ve learned that being open may leave you vulnerable to harm, but it’s also the only way to really connect with yourself, the world, and others.

With that in mind, I give you:

Rescue

She was fond of rules
They gave a shape to her world
Reined in all her fears.

As if by saying
“You may do this, and not that.”
She was in control.

Such a flimsy shield
Against the terrors without and
The chaos within.

She told herself that
A heart safe from harm, a soul
safe from slings & arrows

Justified a life
Bound by reserve and distance
Of closing herself

Locked away inside
This fortress, her heart still sang,
Her soul still yearned.

But in those grey walls,
The song was heard but faintly,
her soul could not soar.

There came, then, at last,
A day when fear of chaos
Fell to fear of rot

And she saw the walls
As they were – not a fortress,
But a grim prison.

A shelter from harm
But also a barrier
To love and to life.

She threw wide the doors
Sweet summer wind rushing in
Warmth replacing chill.

Shoulders squared, she
Clung fast to heart and soul, and
Stepped into the sun.

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I’m Not Just A Member, I’m Also The President

So here’s the thing, kids.

I have, over the years of scratching a path into the dirt on this blue rock,  organized a series of book clubs. They have all come to untimely ends, and I’d like to say it was because schedules got in the way, or the selections were terrible, or I have a bad habit of  pontificating at length about some bit of literary minutia fascinating to me but of incomprehensible and tedious mystery to the rest of the group, but that’s just not the case (except maybe that last one, but come on, it’s ME, people).

No, the reason my book clubs fail is this: I put the cart before the horse.

When I start a book club, I have this vision that we’ll be tucked into cozy chairs somewhere, sipping port, eating fine cheese and water crackers while we discuss the latest selection.  I imagine a roaring fire (or a summer breeze, as the season merits), witty repartee, insightful commentary. I picture a group of like-minded intellectuals mining a book for its treasures, our picks biting deep, unearthing shining bits of truth and wisdom and hilarity.

Now, I know that this sort of thing can smack of elitism, that it can be intimidating or off-putting simply because intellectually rigorous pastimes have become work rather than fun in this country. I know that it can, in the wrong hands, become The Finer Things Club.

And you know what? Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.

I LIKE reading. No, I LOVE it.  I love every part of the process – the smell of the paper, the warm solidity of the book in the hand, the ability of a truly well-written story to swallow me up like Jonah’s great fish and spit me out onto the shores of reality hours later, weary but wiser for the experience.

But that’s only half the reading experience – I also enjoy the vivisection of the patient. I like to peep behind the curtain and look at the gears and cogs that make everything dance so prettily. Are the characters fresh, or archetypes we’ve seen before? If they are old friends in new clothing, how has the author made them important to us in this context? What about plot? Dialogue choice? Content, both obscure and familiar? What about thematic and allegorical subtext? Where is the book within the cultural framework on which it rests?

These are the questions that consume me when I read.

Ah, but my members are a different story.

My most recent book club, The Super Fun Book Club of Fun-ness™, fell victim to what I call “Life Intrudes” syndrome. At the time of its death earlier this year, the club was four years old. It consisted entirely of friends from work, and the idea was that we’d meet every six weeks for lunch to discuss a book selected by vote.

By the end, it had devolved considerably. Hardly anyone read the book, and I had to be “Mean Mommy,” breaking up chatter about work, the latest peccadilloes of the Hollywood elite, and television in order to bring the group back to the topic at hand.

I let the club die a silent death this year. Nobody protested. In fact, only one member even asked what had happened to it (my friend Mona, who always read the book and contributed regularly to discussion).

To be fair, my friends are busy women. They have families to raise, other interests to pursue, and limited time in which to accomplish their goals – in short, women who are too busy for a book club, or at least too busy to make the time for one. To measure their wheat by my bushel is not only arrogant but wrong-headed, and so releasing them from the guilt of a “fun” club that they didn’t have room for was my only option.

Which brings us to today. I’ve decided that, rather than gather up my friends and build a book club around them, I am building my club and saying “This is what is expected when you join this club.”  I am building a cart and saying, “all right, which of you lot wants to schlep this thing round the track with me?”

To wit:

I’ve christened this new club “Bibliovore’s Delight.” We meet every six weeks on Saturdays. Membership is open to anyone who agrees to follow the rules of the club, which are as follows:

1) You read the book. The whole thing. Yes, even if Survivor is on and Leroy is trying to steal immunity from Corncob by forming an alliance with Skeeter. If you haven’t read it, don’t bother to show up – or, if you do show up, prepare to have the ending spoiled for you.

2) You digest the book and produce a few germane comments for sharing. You needn’t bring a thesis (even I don’t want to hear “Harry Potter As Christ: Redemption for Muggle and Mage“), but take note of things that caught your fancy (what did you like? What did you hate? Who was your favorite character, and why?).

3) You have an opinion and don’t mind sharing it (or defending it). Literary endeavor is not for sissies. You want to go toe-to-toe over Heathcliff’s sexuality? Want to engage on the morality of George’s choice to kill Lenny? Let the discussion begin! Naturally, civility will be our watchword, but spirited discussion is most welcome indeed.

[By the by, I was referring to Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights, but if you’ve got some sort of dirt on the ersatz Garfield of the same name, we can discuss that, too.]

4) You believe in active, on-topic participation. There will most likely be theme parties for the books we read. I might have a screening of the movie version for comparative discussion. Members may have supplemental material they’d like us to read and then add to the discussion. The point is, this is a club about thoroughly digesting and enjoying books. Wallflowers can stay home.

As this is a club that is democratic in operation but autocratic in administration, I will choose our first book. We’ll be reading Dashiell Hammett’s excellent final novel, The Thin Man (available here, among other places).

The first meeting will be Saturday, August 15th, 2009 (location TBD) at 6 PM.

Those of you in the Dayton area are welcome to join me physically for the meeting (we’ll most likely have dinner and drinks before/during/after as necessary).

For those of you too distant to join us, I’m on MSN (Claire.M.Jackson@hotmail.com) and will be happy to friend you!

We’ll be doing a live video chat of the meeting via Windows Live Messenger from my laptop, so our more remote members can chime in!

I’ve set up a club site over at Book Movement...e-mail me for details!

If you’re a serious reader who’s looking for serious book-related fun, I hope you’ll join me as I launch Bibliovore’s Delight.

Happy Reading!

CDL Blogoversary FINALE: “Sacrifice”

I want to thank you ALL for helping me celebrate Claire De Lunacy’s First Blogoversary! Special thanks to my guest bloggers, who were willing to have their names associated with this shady enterprise, as well as to you, my readers, without whom this would all be sort of pointless. You rock, and I plan to continue trying to be worthy of the attention and friendship you’ve bestowed upon me.

[Today’s post is, as promised, a short story from the Circe universe. Cleo and Meander is nearing completion (please, God, let that be true!) and I’ve started the second book, entitled La Barceloneta. The story below takes place a few decades before the events of that book, but should serve as both a glimpse into the world I’m attempting to create and a preview of things to come. Thanks for reading, and as always, your comments are welcome and appreciated!]

They came for her at dawn.

The hut where she’d been sleeping, cramped with the other children, was filthy and cold. They’d been sleeping in a squirming knot near the hut’s flickering brazier, trying to conserve what little heat they could, but on this particular morning she found herself relegated to the outermost layer, her back to the unshuttered window. She’d no more than sat up when they grabbed her, the bigger one’s knife cutting through the heavy rope they’d used to tie her to the ring set in the floor. Her ankles burned, the flesh tender and pink where the coarse hemp had bitten into them, and she stumbled against the smaller man when his companion shoved her forward. He laughed and slapped her with careless ease, knocking her to the ground. The other man knelt, picking her up and holding her shoulders. “Little field mouse gonna be a big-big treat fer da Rainmaker,” he said, his fetid breath mixing with the scents of salt and sea. “Gonna bring da big catch, you bet.” He ran a scaly finger down her cheek, and she turned away, shuddering. “Why, Luc, I tink our lil’ ratonelle don’t care for you one bit,” laughed the smaller man. The grip on her shoulder tightened for a moment, then eased. Luc stood, shoving her toward the door again, this time more gently. “I doan care if she do or not, Martin…the only one we worried ’bout pleasin’ is Papa Chauc.” Martin snorted and grabbed the girl’s shoulder, pausing to kick one of the sleeping children out of his way as they moved to the door. The boy groaned, but didn’t awaken, and the two corsairs stepped into the misty morning air, their captive trudging listlessly between them.

The hike to the cave was not a long one, but the grade was steep and the girl was exhausted. Within ten minutes, she was limping; within fifteen, Luc had scooped her up from the ground, carrying her over his shoulder like a sack of corn. Despite Martin’s frequent goading, the girl never made a sound. Frustrated at being denied his fun, the Legartine poked her in the ribs with the butt of his knife, which elicited a grunt from the girl and a much harder jab from Luc’s knife handle to his head. “You doan wanna do that, heah? You can’t be pokin’ at her just cause she woan squeak.” Martin rubbed his head, checking for loose scales and glaring up at his companion “Why not? It not like she goan give us any trouble for it.” Luc turned, fixing the other man with a glance. “She may not, but I guarantee He will.” He jerked his head toward a nearby clearing, smirking. “A sacrifice wit no wriggle left is no good to Him nor us.”

The crested the hill and entered the clearing, which was actually more of a widening in the path, the scrub pines and lizardgrass thinning out as the loam was replaced by the rocky soil of the coast. To the left, the path continued on, hugging the coast for a short time before curving inland and re-entering the forest. To the right lay a jagged cave, the rocks outside it littered with bones of various kinds. “Well, here we are, little mouse. Ready to meet da Rainmaker?” asked Martin with a grin. Whether from the sight of the cave or Martin’s unfortunate collection of bent and broken fangs, the girl finally lost the eerie composure she’d held and began to cry. Luc shushed her, almost gently, and set her down. He ran his finger across her cheek once more, gathering her tears, and wiped them onto a cloth he pulled from his pocket, startlingly white in the noontime sun. “That’s it, little one. Your tears for His. Your life so that we may all live.” He knelt, his leathery hide creaking as he lowered himself to look at her, face to face. Her tears were still falling, but her eyes remained closed. “C’mon, xere. Nothin’ personal, eh? You gonna go to the Green Heaven, and not gonna be hungry, nor thirsty never again! Doan that sound nice?”

Martin leaned over and wiped her tears away on another white cloth, not bothering to be gentle. “Yeah, she just gonna take a lil’ swim first!” He laughed again, a smaller roar against the boom of the sea on the rocks beyond the cave. “Gonna stop and have herself a chat with Papa Chauc, yes indeed!” He walked to the cave and pressed the white cloth against the carved wheel that blocked the entrance, stepping back as it rumbled open. He stepped inside to begin the preparations, waving the cloth like a flag before blowing the girl a kiss.  Luc rolled his eyes and was muttering about  Martin and where he could put his oarman’s wit when the girl suddenly reached out toward him, eyes squeezed shut.

She’d been much the same when they’d taken her, along with the rest of the brats, from that trumped-up fishing village on the northern coast. Flower Wars were long since out of fashion in the civilized world, but in the islands and along the coast, the old ways still held, and of course everywhere the ocean touched, the ways of Papa Chauc held firmest. The parents had squawked to the local alcalde about kidnapping and murder, but he had declared (after a clarifying “conference” with Luc, Martin, and a priest being ridden by the god Himself) that the prosperity of all could not be sacrificed for the safety of the few, especially when those few were going on to eternal glory and reward for their services. And so Luc and Martin had loaded their captives into the wagon and driven away under the hateful stares of a dozen mothers and fathers, their cries so anguished that Luc had been forced to look away. That’s when he’d noticed the girl, curled into a protective ball, the feathers and shells of her sacrificial raiment set aside, eyes squeezed shut. She’d never made a sound, not one, and he was surprised to realize she could make sounds; he’d assumed she was a mute.

He’d seen this before, of course; some of ’em, they just couldn’t be made to take the steps themselves. Sometimes, their little hearts and bodies were too slender a thread from which to dangle the responsibility they carried. He’d carry her, if he had to; unlike his shipmate, he didn’t relish this work. It was necessary, of course – no sacrifice meant a poor catch and even poorer hunting – but that didn’t mean he was unfeeling toward the children he’d brought to this cave over the years. On the contrary (he’d sometimes say after a few too many ales), he was probably far kinder than anyone else they’d met, ‘sides their parents, and in some cases, even then. He was bringing them to eternal comfort and rest, free from storms and privation. He was (and this thought he never shared aloud with others – he did have a reputation to uphold, after all) a sort of angel, bringing blessings to his people and release to his captives. So, now, when the girl reached out, he leaned forward to embrace her and offer whatever comfort he could before he took her to the well and tossed her in. “That’s it, xere, just -”

Then her eyes opened, and in those black pools he saw not fear, but his own death waiting.

Her gaze was hot, somehow, and before it his thoughts of angels and necessary sacrifice withered and turned to ash. He slashed at her, his hand curled to maximize the damage from his claws, but she was fast, so fast. He opened his mouth to yell for Martin, but somehow his voice was gone, he couldn’t breathe. Then he saw the handle of his own knife standing out from the soft flesh of his throat, and the girl was standing over him. Her eyes, they blazed, he was burning up, why didn’t she say something? His body felt remote and cold despite the fury of that gaze, his body jittering the last of its life out on the clearing floor.

“The knife hit your brain stem, I think.” This from the girl, in a whispery voice that belied her raging eyes. “It’ll be quick. You were kinder than you had to be, and for that I thank you, Luc D’Argent. Now, go to your god, and find peace.” His eyes widened – how did she know his name? – but black waves were crashing around the edges of his vision, smothering thought, drawing him deep. The last thing he saw was her eyes, so bright and yet so black, shining like the sun behind unwept tears.

She’d kicked the knife too hard, and the tip was embedded in the corsair’s spine. After several useless attempts to free it, she stood on the dead Legartine’s chest and, digging her heels into the scaly muscles of his broad chest, jerked the knife free. Blood gouted from the wound briefly, but he’d already lost so much that the gush became a trickle within seconds, and with his heart stilled, it stopped soon after. She wiped the knife clean on the edge of Luc’s tunic, reaching up to close his eyes with a silent prayer. Rummaging through his belt pouch, she found tinder, some a few lucifers, and, as she had hoped, the length of rope meant to lower her into the cave for her “chat” with the thing inside. She had no sooner fastened the pouch around her own waist when Martin emerged from the cave, looking over his shoulder.

“Luc, we’d best hurry. I’d say Papa Chauc is big-big hongry, eh? Time to..” Despite his girth, the squat sailor was nimble, and the stone that was meant to blind him merely stunned him instead. He roared, dashing behind a boulder just as another jagged stone smashed into the wall behind him, shattering. “Well, well, what have we heah?” he said, a terrible good humor in his voice. “Looks like our little mouse has some teeth after all!” When there was no response to this sally, Martin popped his head from cover to evaluate the situation, then drew back as another stone shattered on the rim of the boulder. His captain was down, and judging by the ichor soaking the sand around him, very dead. The girl was nowhere to be seen, but the only possible cover was the tall boulder across the clearing from his own. “Girly, we gonna have a chat of our own, and I doan think you gonna like it! No sir, you gonna BEG me to introduce you to Papa Chauc befo’ I’m through!” He kept it up, a steady stream of threats and imprecations designed to keep her attention on where she thought he was, rather than where he was gonna be. The heavy rock walls around the clearing made his voice a crash of echoes, and he knew she’d never be able to see him coming if he stayed low and moved slowly. He was a third of the way around the clearing when the sound of stones skipping and shattering all over the clearing stopped. He froze, certain she’d be on him in an instant, but there was nothing…not even the wind. He craned his neck and peered out from behind the low rock he was using for cover. The sun was burning high and hot, but nothing cast a shadow in the clearing.

He grinned, confident she had either fled, in which case he would soon chase her down, or run out of ammo, in which case he would leap from cover and rip out her throat before tossing her body into the Well. “Xere, you just about outta time! Tell you what – if you give up nice and quiet, maybe I’ll just take your legs befo’ I give you to da Rainmaker.” There – a scuffling in the sand. He leapt up with a roar, diving behind the tall boulder, ready to savage her and satisfy his own bloodlust along with his god’s.

She wasn’t there. Nothing but sand and the sacrifice rope, neatly tied to the tip of the bould –

CRASH!

Dust roiled, sparkling in the sunlight. She leapt down, the rope now coiled over her shoulder. She winced at the pain in her still-tender ankles, then blinked and steadied herself. As she came around the far side of the fallen boulder, headed for the cave, a hand shot from the sand, the claws broken, the armored skin rent and bloody. It grasped her ankle, a leathery manacle, and she forced herself to stand there, calmly counting the minutes, until at last the hand twitched and relaxed, releasing her. She spit, just once, and then kicked sand over it until nothing remained but a vaguely misshappen lump in a chrystalline blanket.

She stood before the cave, hair gleaming like a raven’s wing in the sun, thirteen years old but already carrying herself with the deadly ease of a seasoned campaigner. She stood there, listening to the roar of the sea, letting the sun soak her with its strength. Then, as she had been taught, she drew her knife across her forearm, her blood dimpling the bonedust that had accumulated into drifts over the milennia. She slapped a bloody handprint on the doorwheel, whispering “Blood calls to blood, tears to tears.”  Immediately, the walls of the cave began to shake, the earth shifting as something made its way up from beneath. He was coming, full of rage and hunger and – could it be? – fear.

“Uncle, are you home? My father sends his regards.”

And smiling ever so slightly, eyes flashing like obsidian mirrors, the girl from Barcelona made her sacrifice.

CDL Blogoversary Day Five: “Simon Velour Retaliates”

We’re celebrating Claire De Lunacy’s First Blogoversary, and I’ve invited some very gracious and awesome friends to contribute to this mess, sharing their words with you, my beloved readers. Through June 10th, there will be a new post from a different guest each day, culminating with a new, full-length short story by yours truly. I hope you enjoy my guests’ work as much as I do, and I hope you’ll stick around to see what happens during the NEXT year.

[Today’s Guest Blogger is Stuart Beaton. Stuart’s something of a mystery to me, I only know him through his strange – well, to be honest – warped persona on Twitter. He masqueraded as a stuffed monkey for several month, then threw in the towel, to move on to “somewhere else”.

Somewhere else, it seems, is China. There he pretends to teach English, whilst trying to do as little work as possible.

Judging by his website, “The Small Picture” (http://rastous.spaces.live.com), he’s succeeding. It seems he’s a plump little thing with a penchant for food, guns and an expanding collection of Totoros, Spongebobs and Doraemons.

Which leads me to think he’s probably right round the twist, but, hey, who cares, right?

Anyway, Stuart’s Australian by birth, educated at Adelaide Uni, and has lived and worked in both China and Japan.

It seems that occasionally, he’s struck by brilliance – so here’s a short piece of fiction, weeded from the normal dross he produces.]

The man opposite Simon was unusually tall for a Japanese, and muscle filled out the lines of his Armani suit. He gripped a tumbler of whiskey and ice in one hand, and a punch corona in the other.

“Velour-san, let me understand what you’re asking of me… you are asking me to help you to recover something stolen from your government, by a rival clan?”

Simon sipped at his drink, and shuffled gently on the soft leather sofa. “Er, well, yes. It’s rather embarrassing really… I can’t make it official, but I must get the briefcase back. And I understand that you have no love for this other mob, anyway.”

“Ah, Velour-san, perhaps you do not realise that your request, as it stands, is very unusual. Why should I help you with this endeavour?”

“Oh, Kenichi, you have such a short memory… who saved your arse last year, when those bastards tried to blow your head off in the bar, eh? Weren’t  you glad that the lads and I were there that night?”

“Verlour-san…”

“That guy did have the barrel of a pistol to your head, Kenichi, when I hit him with the bench.”

“Ok, Velour-san, we’ll do what we can to help you. Now, what do you need?”

“Kenichi, old son, I’m going to need a light for this cigar for starters….”

*

The black limo rolled to a halt outside the office block, and Simon stepped out of it onto the footpath.

“Jesus, this is their headquarters? At least the Guineas have a little more style.”

The grey block was two minutes walk from the Kashiwa train station, but a world removed from the department stores that the Station Mall housed.

Barely 15 stories tall, it was a light weight beside its Shinjuku cousins.

The ground floor housed a run down bar and a florist, which were separated by a small lobby.

Simon stuck his head into the limo, and told the driver to keep the car running.

“Ok, Kenichi”, he muttered under his breath, as he strolled across the lobby, “we’ll try it your nice, polite way first.”

A reception desk was located next to the lift wells, and pretty young lass behind it rattled off a string of Japanese at him as he approached.

“Sorry, M’Dear, I didn’t quite catch that – come again?”

“I said, sir, can I help you?”

“Yes, you most certainly can. Get on that phone, and tell Mr Suzuki that Mr Velour is here to talk to him about a briefcase.”

“Er, sir….”

“Do it. Now.”

The woman picked up a phone, and held what sounded to Simon like a rather heated conversation, before she replaced it again on its cradle.

“Mr Suzuki will see you now, sir. If you’d like to take that lift to the top floor….”

As if by magic, the lift doors glided open, and a pair of heavyset guards stepped out. Simon got in, and the goons flanked him as the doors closed.

Simon was quickly but efficiently patted down for weapons before the lift arrived at the top floor. When the doors opened, Simon was stunned for a moment by the subtle opulence of the place – a far cry from the shabby exterior of the building.

“Ah, the remarkable Simon Velour… you honour us with your presence. To what do we owe such an honour?”

Simon slipped walked across the polished floor towards a large mahogany desk, by which a short man in a dark black suit stood. Behind him, a pair of cleaners worked diligently on a descending rig, polishing the large plate glass window.

“Mr Suzuki, I presume?”

“Yes.”

“I believe you have something that belongs to me… a briefcase one of your lot lifted from a cargo terminal at Narita. I’d like it back… and I’d like it back now.”

Suzuki’s face flushed red, and he snarled, “You have a lot of impertinence, even for a gaijin, Velour. What is to stop me from simply killing you now, and keeping the briefcase?”

“Because, you idiot, there are two men with machine guns standing behind you.”

Suzuki turned, and gazed at the smiling faces of the two “cleaners” who stood holding H&K MP5’s outside his office window.

“No use calling for help, either, Suzuki mate, your lads are a bit tied up with a punch up in your bar, too. Now… about that briefcase?”

Suzuki’s face was a mask of rage, one that would have suited any samurai’s armour, as he walked towards a large bar against the wall of the room. Simon crossed the distance to him, careful not to interrupt the line of fire of the two gun men.

“Ah, ah, ah, not so fast Suzuki”, Simon said as the man unlatched a concealed panel. “A smart man would have a weapon in there, too. Open it nice and slow, and don’t make any sudden moves.”

The panel slid silently open, revealing the plain black leather briefcase – and a pair of 9mm Glock pistols. Simon picked up the case, and gave it a careful heft.

“I trust you’ve not been stupid enough to open this? No? Good. Then I shall bid you adieu, Suzuki….”

“Velour, you gaijin dog, how do you expect to live long enough to even take that case out of this building?”

“Oh, please, Suzuki, no idle threats. Do you remember that hotel you took that little schoolgirl to in Shinjuku? The one that had all kinds of closed circuit programmes to watch on the TV?”

Suzuki’s face blanched.

“Well, smile, dickhead”, Simon deadpanned, “you’re on candid camera. I’d love to see what the other clans would say if that video became public….” He turned on his heel, and strode back in to the lift.

“Next time, you might want to dispense with the Superman outfit, too.”

The lift doors closed.

*

Still clutching the case tightly, Simon walked past a raging brawl that had erupted in the bar, and in to the waiting limo.

Kenichi handed him a cigar, and asked, “Well, Velour-san, you have the case, and I have a nice little video tape in case that little prick Suzuki decides to throw his weight around. I do hope my men aren’t getting hurt in that punch up you engineered, though.”

Simon took a draw on the cigar, and nodded. “Thanks for your help, Kenichi, I reckon that makes us even. Nice of you to lend my lads the cleaner’s outfits… just how long have you had the maintenance contract on Suzuki’s building?”

“About six hours, Simon – long enough for your purposes… and ours. By the way, what’s in the case?”

“Promise me, Kenichi, that you won’t be angry if I show you?”

“I give you my word, Simon.”

Simon extracted a slim key from his coat pocket, and unlocked the case.

Opening the lid, he revealed to Kenichi eight large black jars, each with a bright yellow label.

“For this, Simon, you would have my clan go to war, and risk your life?”

“Oh, c’mon, Kenichi, everyone knows Vegemite’s worth more than gold in this country….”

[It’s me again. He’s a funny sort, isn’t he? Pay him a visit at his site, I’m sure he’ll appreciate the interaction – it’ll give him something to talk about with the guards.

Coming up tomorrow: A fascinating piece on something I’m sure nobody ever expected to see on this blog – breast reduction surgery. See you then!]

CDL Blogoversary, Day Four: “The Bride Comes to Black Hawk”

We’re celebrating Claire De Lunacy’s First Blogoversary, and I’ve invited some very gracious and awesome friends to contribute to this mess, sharing their words with you, my beloved readers. Through June 10th, there will be a new post from a different guest each day, culminating with a new, full-length short story by yours truly. I hope you enjoy my guests’ work as much as I do, and I hope you’ll stick around to see what happens during the NEXT year.

[Today’s Guest Blogger is Stacy Stephens.  She was born in Omaha’s Near North Side, spending much of her early childhood in the same neighborhood where Malcolm X had spent his. However, she spent her adolescence in Gerald Ford‘s old neighborhood, her family having moved out of the aptly misnomered Pleasant View Housing Project.

Like Henry Fonda, she graduated from Omaha’s Central High School, where she attained the rank of Cadet Corporal in Army JROTC, and got good grades in the classes she liked. During and after High School, she worked a number of food service and telemarketing jobs, finally settling into a retail position at a locally owned pharmacy, ultimately becoming manager of retail merchandise, over-the-counter pharmaceutical products and liqour before marrying, having a child, and divorcing.

While raisng that child, she attended the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where she was elected to Student Senate three consecutive years, made Dean’s List twice, and was selected for membersip in Omicron Delta Kappa. She majored in Secondary Education Language Arts, graduating with a 3.08 GPA. Her formal writing classes included Journalism as well as Poetry and Fiction Studio.

You can find her online at http://www.msstacy.com]

“He paused as if,
though this was too dark a chapter to be gone into,
it must have its place,
its moment of silent recognition.”

Willa Cather
A Lost Lady

I don’t suppose it would be correct to say that David had returned from the Yukon.  He had been there, had set out among thousands of others hoping to find gold in the wilderness, and found only wilderness.  He had given up everything, which in his case probably wasn’t much, to invest in corn meal and back bacon, picks and pans, canvas, rope, tent pegs and a mule, which he ate before spring came.  Having thus survived the winter without profit, other than experience, he again gave up everything and made his way south once more, his wherewithal being adequate to bring him no further than Black Hawk, Nebraska, which was nowhere near where he began.  So he had not returned, but only found himself here.

Among those who bothered to hold an opinion of him, he wasn’t considered much of a man, but what man is?  That’s only my opinion.  He might be called wiry, if the speaker were polite or had nothing to imply.  Otherwise, he’d be called wispy, to suggest a delicacy which might approach criminal behavior of a sexual character given the right wrong circumstances.  This is, once again, only my opinion, but I had always sensed the fragrance of sour grapes when any man spoke of him like that.  Whether he was too innocent or too discriminating to accommodate the rough-cut pansies who fancied him, I couldn’t be sure; I could only be certain, when they spewed their vitriol, that he had spurned them, if not naively, then gently.  And none of them seemed ever to realize that their sinister implications cast more profound aspersions on their own characters by inference than they were casting on  him.  It’s only the man who burns his lips on a tin cup who complains about the coffee being too hot.

“Some day, Edna,” David said to me one spring morning as we rode out to mend fence, “I’ll have put enough by to invest in a shop in town.”

“A shop?” I asked.

“Reckon I can sell dolls,” he explained.

“Dolls?”

“And trains of cars for boys.”

“You mean a toy shop?”

“Exactly.”

We stopped at a post without barbed wire and began looking.  If it had merely worked loose, we could just hook it to the post again.  If it had broken, we’d have to splice it back together with a strip of new wire joining the loose ends.  If it were entirely gone, we’d have to string up a new length from the previous post to the next one.  It’s the kind of work where strength is wasted.  You just need the dexterity to use pliers with gloves on your hands.

“Can’t people order toys from a catalog?” I felt compelled to ask.  The proposed venture struck me as inherently risky.

“Of course they can,” he replied, reaching down to grasp a snarled strand.  He gripped it just loosely enough to let it slide through his glove as his horse crept along.  “Whoa!” he instructed the horse as he came to the end of it.  “Cut me yea much,” he instructed me, tilting his head to indicate the distance to the next post.  He didn’t have to tell me to add the extra length needed for twisting the pieces together.  “But just imagine a girl actually seeing her dolly in a window,” he went on with our discussion as I snaked the vicious wire from its spool.  “Not just a little ink drawing on paper.”  He paused as I cut the fresh strand.  When I handed it to him, a loop raised high above our heads and our horses, he resumed.  “Think any daddy won’t buy his little girl a dolly once he sees her eyes light up?”

I had never had a dolly.  My eyes had never lit up when I looked at one.  Still, I could see his point, and knew it was valid.  He might not have found gold in the Yukon, but he had learned how to prospect. He had the splice knotted tight.

“And I reckon I can put a train of cars in the window,” he added as he nudged his horse toward the post, pulling the wire taut.

“What makes them toy trains go?” I asked.

“Alcohol burner,” he grunted as he cinched the wire around the post.  “The locomotive is a real steam engine.”

“Isn’t that dangerous?”

“Sure,” he admitted as we moved on.  “That’s why little boys love ‘em.”

He knew his product and his clientele.  How could he fail?

“Then I figure I’ll find me a good Christian woman,” he added, almost as if it were the moral of his story.  He’d never said or done anything that gave me the impression he would know what he ought to do with a woman, although it was clear that if he wanted a man, he would have had one by that time.  Perhaps he believed the sort of woman he hoped to marry could guide him into the uncharted waters awaiting him, or perhaps it was truly a matter of still waters indeed running deep.  Although I was a bit curious about this, it was really no concern of mine.

* * *

Eli McNichols had arrived in Black Hawk when I was still a child.  I assume his arrival had something to do with a potato blight, although my grasp of history is imperfect and indistinct.  I only know that while he found no particular advantage in being Irish, his being Catholic was no detriment to him, either.  The protestants of the County, divided into several congregations, lacked the political clout contained in the County’s single large and united Catholic parish, which elected him sheriff once he marshaled it behind him, not long after his naturalization.  He then learned that by exercising his authority regularly, he could keep it strong.  It was often observed that while the Governor commanded the militia, Eli commanded respect.  Accordingly, no one remarked on his bride simply arriving on the Burlington, having departed Ireland at his instruction and expense some weeks earlier, other than to say that she was lovely.  She was, of course, covered with damp soot, but this standard veneer of rail travel scarcely detracted from her obvious charm.

“Sure an its a warm reception your town’s folk are giving me, Eli,” was the first thing I heard her say.  I was struck by her Irish way of rhyming “warm” with “arm.”  We had all come to see her, not only out of curiosity, but from a wish to avoid explaining to Eli why we hadn’t done him the honor of welcoming his fiancee.

She looked still more beautiful the next day, at her wedding.  Her dress, which was sparkling white and had arrived in town several days before she did, was rumored to be no less than nine yards of the finest silk available.

Even if Eli had been a lesser man in the county, it’s unlikely that anyone would have talked much about Alice’s increasingly obvious clumsiness.  It went without saying, generally, that the bruises and black eyes revealed a propensity toward walking into half-open doors in the darkness, and that she ought to be more careful.

* * *

It was well into summer when, on a Sunday morning after mass, David went to fetch the buggy for my parents and I went with him, being restless.  We saw Eli and Alice, who didn’t notice us, walking slightly ahead of us.
We couldn’t quite hear what she said, but did see Eli raising his hand, drawing it back.  As he did this, his head turned, and he saw us behind them.  He lowered his hand.

“Mind yer lip,” we heard him say.

David trembled, and I realized that I had never seen him angry before.  When we stopped to unhitch the horses, Eli and Alice continued on their way.

“Ought to be a law,” David said as he shook the reins.

“If there were,” I observed, “we could hardly expect him to arrest himself.”

“Whoa up,” he said to the horses when we were at the church.  Mother and Father got in, and we said nothing more about it.

* * *

It was a few weeks later that we saw the badger.

We had just finished dinner.  Mother was pouring coffee.  Although the day was hot, it’s never too hot for coffee after dinner.

“What ails that creature?” she asked suddenly, gazing with an uneasy intensity at something outside.  I stood and looked.  A badger, having emerged from the shallow draw beyond the yard, was ambling toward the house.  At night, this might be only slightly strange, but in the heat of the noonday sun, the best explanation and certainly the safest assumption was that the animal was in the earlier stages of rabies.  At once, I had my rifle loaded and was soon outside, quickly kneeling and firing as soon as I had my aim.

The badger flew backward, flipping in the air and landing several feet behind where he had been.  Already, David had brought a shovel.

“If I’d had you in the Yukon with me,” he said as he began digging a firebreak around the carcass, “I wouldn’t have had to eat my mule.”

“Do you even have a gun?” I asked.

“Just a pistol,” he told me.  “The only thing I brought back from the Yukon, besides the clothes I was wearing.”

After putting my rifle away, I fetched a tin of kerosene, soaked the animal down, and put a match to it.  We watched it burn from a comfortable distance, and that evening we turned the earth over on it to a depth of a few feet.

* * *

After the incident with the badger, it occurred to me that since rabbit tastes like chicken and their fur does fetch a small price, I could prolong the lives of our best layers and help David put by a little for his toy shop while keeping in practice with  my rifle.  We began hunting rabbits.  I’d shoot them, he’d skin them and dress them, and my mother would cook them.

On toward Autumn, we had accumulated a large number of pelts, and the night of the Czech festival, David figured there would be several people on hand to buy them, although we would have to wait until late, since nobody would want smelly rabbit hides with them all evening.  By that time, his buyers would also be drunk, which would doubtless enhance his negotiating skills.

We were riding into town, each with a pile of skins across our horses’ flanks, when we saw a couple walking in the moonlight, going away from the activities.  We knew, when we heard Eli’s voice carrying, that it was him and Alice.  We couldn’t make out what he was saying, but could tell that he was drunk and surly.  We heard the impact of his fist on her cheek just moments after we saw her sprawling away from him and stumbling to keep her feet.  Instantly, David was at the gallop.  I reined my horse in and dismounted, noticing then that my rifle, in the saddle holster, was still loaded.
I saw David’s pistol sparkle in the moonlight.  I couldn’t hear what he said, but I heard Eli.

“Are ye daft?  This is the twentieth century, boy.  This is nineteen-aught-three.  We don’t have gunslingers here anymore.”

A number of people were hurrying out from a brightly lighted barn, where there was still some dancing going on.

David spoke again.

Eli replied, “As ye will, then.”

I saw moonlight flash on the barrel of his gun.  There were shots, I saw splinters fly from the side of the barn, above everyone’s heads.  The breeze dispersed them behind the crowd, from the midst of which came several screams.
Eli lay on the ground.

In just a few moments, it was known that he was dead.  Holding his pistol between his fingers, David surrendered it to one of the men nearby.  Several of them escorted him to jail, where he waited with them until a deputy could be sworn in to officially arrest him.

* * *

The jury, made up of Presbyterians and Lutherans, couldn’t see hanging David for shooting an Irishman.  The argument his attorney presented allowed them to consider it as a crime of passion, what with Alice being so strikingly beautiful, and they found him guilty of manslaughter, sentencing him to ten years.  The circumstances having occurred in full view of the public, there was no autopsy, or even a careful examination of the body.  So it was never known that David had, in fact, hit the broad side of a barn.  The fatal bullet had been fired from my rifle.

[It’s me again. I hope you enjoyed this great story as much as I did – be sure to swing by Stacy’s site to say “hi,” or catch her on “The Twitter” at http://www.twitter.com/msstacy13.

Coming up tomorrow: another great short story!]

Excerpt: The Fugitive

Hey there, cats and kittens. Here’s another excerpt from my upcoming book, Cleo and Meander. As always, I treasure the feedback of my readers and would love to hear your thoughts.

The trouble had started with the damned door. She’d been in a hurry and left it unlocked, which meant that Rafo strolled right into her bedroom instead of being forced to struggle with the lock for ten minutes…and that, in turn, meant that he’d seen her startled face drop out of sight as she slid out the window. She was up and running in a wink, but Rafo’s angry roars were already chasing her before she was halfway across The Commons. By the time she’d made it here, to the Lost Promenade, he’d had his underwardens prowling the entire estate. If she hadn’t been able to reach the loft before he stormed in, tail swishing, she would’ve been caught for certain – and if she was caught, her house arrest might very well become permanent.

Lying in the shadows formed by stacked crates and old bits of stone, Meander thought about her options. Rafo, like most of the Felis, had a keen nose and even keener eyes, which meant that any hiding place was temporary at best. He’d no doubt notified her father of her escape, so in addition to eluding Rafo and his pack of enforcers, she’d have to give the main house a wide berth. Inching forward for a better view, she stifled a gasp when she saw a familiar silhouette illuminated by the torches in the entryway. Her father.

“Rafo, please tell me that you’ve found my daughter.” Daffyd Reynaldo was not a tall man, but nevertheless managed to give the impression of towering over the giant housewarden in front of him. “Er, no, xefe, not yet. I thought she’d be here…in fact, I’m almost sure she is here, somewhere…” His employer’s snort brought him up short. “Rafo, you’re almost sure? Are you telling me you can track a bird by its shadow but you can’t find a girl who has trouble traveling to town without three maps and an escort?” Rafo’s eyes shifted, his tail twitching against his legs. “Xefe, you know how it is with her. She’s…slippery. Especially when she doesn’t want to be found. Remember when she was a child, and she hid for three days because she didn’t want to take a bath? And even then we wouldn’t have found her if it wasn’t for her…” The felis snapped his mouth shut, biting his tongue painfully in the process…but he wasn’t fast enough. “If it wasn’t for her mother? Is that what you were going to say, Rafo? I sincerely hope not, because you know the penalty for even THINKING that name, let alone mentioning it.” For a moment, Daffyd’s eyes glowed almost as brightly as his housewarden’s, and the torches leapt in their brackets. Rafo took a step back, wondering for the second time this evening if everyone in the Reynaldo family was going slowly insane. The light in Daffyd’s eyes winked out, and he shook his head, as if clearing away fumes. “Rafo, forgive me. You know better than most the pain I carry. I should not have threatened you so.” He looked up as Rafo put a meaty paw on his shoulder. “You ask for that which is not needed, old friend. It is not an easy thing, raising a child alone, and it is made doubly difficult when that child grows into a woman as…spirited as Andi is.”

Daffyd smiled, smoothing his silvering hair with one hand, and sighed. “You’re right, of course. And “spirited” is probably the nicest thing I can say about my wayward daughter at the moment. I pray that Inri and Celene will bring her the strength to tame that spirit before it gets her killed.” Rafo, back on firmer ground now that he was reasonably sure he’d live to see the sunrise, smiled as well. “We won’t let that happen, Daffyd. She’s a good girl, she’s just restless. It’s for the best that she’s heading to Academy next month…the change of scenery will do her good.” He turned, his eyes roving over the stone pillars and alcoves of the Promenade a final time. As they passed over the storage loft, they narrowed. “Xefe, I think…” With a plaintive meow, a ginger-colored cat leapt down from the shadows of the loft, startling both men. “Looks like you’re not the only one on the prowl tonight, eh, Rafo?” The housewarden smiled, but his eyes searched the shadows again for a moment before he turned to follow Daffyd into the courtyard.

Coughing as quietly as possible, Meander thrust aside the dusty blanket she’d used as impromptu camouflage and sat up, brushing the dirt and straw from her tunic. Thank the gods for that barn cat! She’d tried to stay hidden, but hearing her father talk plainly with Rafo about matters he’d long since ceased discussing with her had piqued her interest, and she’d moved forward in the shadows to better hear their conversation. Even the faint torchlight that reached the loft was sufficient to expose her to Rafo’s sharp eyes, however, and ducking under the blanket wouldn’t have worked if the cat hadn’t been napping on it when she grabbed for cover. Sighing, Meander stood, stepping carefully across the loose boards to the edge of the loft. After a thorough survey of the Promanade, she decided the coast was clear. She was two rungs down the ladder when she heard soft laughter from the shadows.

“Rafo’s right, you know. The Acadamy will be good for you. It might even teach you some discipline.” Meander gaped, surprised to see her father standing not ten feet away. “Oh, come now, Andi, did you forget whose child you are? It’s a loft, not the far side of Maya.” He took a step forward, his face a white mask of rage that belied his calm tone. “Here’s what’s going to happen. You’re going to come back to your apartments with me, and you’re going to stay there until you leave for Acadamy next month. You are banned from not only the Lost Promenade, but from any and all stonewalking. I’m sorry, Andi, but you’re too unfocused – and far too powerful – to remain untrained.” A note of pride crept into his voice at the end, and Meander felt an unwilling thrill at this grudging praise. “Father, I know how you feel, but I told you, training isn’t essential. The most powerful stonewalkers weren’t trained at all! Training focuses your power, but it also limits it. Who knows what we could accomplish, if we only…” Daffyd cut her off sharply. “I know. I know what can be accomplished. You can lose your mind, or end up in the middle of a sun, or vanish without a trace into the spaces between the stars. Is that what you want, Meander? To end up like your mother?” To Meander’s shock, her father’s face was wet with tears. “By Inri’s Mirror, girl, do you want to see me dead? Because losing you would kill me as surely as frost kills the flower.” All the anger seemed to drain out of him, and for the first time, Meander could see just how tired and old her father really was. Her eyes flooded with tears of her own, and she moved to step from the ladder to go to him. “Patro, I never meant to…”

Then there was a loud CRACK!, and she was falling.

Even though the loft was only twenty or so feet above the Promenade floor, to Meander the fall was endless. She felt the shattered bits of ladder dig into her calf as she twisted, hands closing on nothing but air. She tried to scream, but her throat was locked shut. Her father’s face appeared at the edge of the loft like a distant moon rising above some alien ridge, calling her name, his voice as seemingly remote as everything else. She felt the roof of one of the pavilions give way as she struck it, and knew the next thing she hit would be the broken stepstone stored inside. Without thinking, she reached out blindly, and as her hand touched the cool white stone, Meander Reynaldo went walkabout.

OSI: Farewells

Once again, I’m participating in the sweet poetry fun they’re hosting over at One Single Impression. This week’s prompt is “Farewells.” If you enjoy poetry (and I know that you do), get on over to their site and check it out.

You never say it
So sweetly superstitious
Unwilling to be

The one who conjures
Finality within the
Circle of our love.

Instead you will say
“Later, Alligator!” or
“Hasta La Vista.”

In what may be the
Worst Austrian accent I’ve
Ever encountered.

The word has never
Had such power in my world
(Semantics bore me)

But I’ve said good night,
So long, farewell, and the rest
Often enough now

To know not to use
This shibboleth you’ve proscribed
Because in your ear

The world ends with

Goodbye.