Sightless and Hobble

Once upon a time in the ancient lands of Cambodia, there lived two very poor men, Sightless and Hobble. Sightless was blind and Hobble lame. They were both slaves to a very wealthy man who had bought them at one of the many slave markets in the city to work on his farm. The work was hard and their master unkind and Sightless and Hobble were very unhappy.

One dark night, Sightless and Hobble decided to escape. They snuck down to the river, got into one of their master’s canoes and started to paddle. All night long they paddled and paddled and by morning they were truly exhausted. Surely by now they were a long way down the river.

Unfortunately, Sightless and Hobble had sat facing one another paddling in opposite directions, so the canoe had not moved. Their master was very angry when he found them still at the end of his dock and punished them severely by giving them the hardest work on the farm. But Sightless and Hobble were not deterred. They merely waited for another chance to escape.

One day when they were sent out into the countryside to work, no one was watching and they were able to sneak away. Sightless knew that separately a blind man and a lame man are very slow, so to speed their travels he lifted Hobble onto his shoulders. Now with Sightless’ legs and Hobble’s eyes, they were successful in making their escape. As they moved along the country roads, they came across a large rice basket, a rake, a length of old rope, and finally a tortoise. Hobble objected as Sightless gathered each of these odd things.

“Why should I have to carry them all?” he asked. But Sightless insisted they would be useful, so Hobble agreed.

All day they traveled as fast as Sightless’ legs could go and by nightfall they arrived at the gates of a beautiful temple. They entered expecting the temple to be empty and were surprised to see a beautiful young woman weeping on the floor.

The two travelers tried to comfort the young woman but she was inconsolable. She explained that the kingdom was terrorized by a very wicked giant and every night the king was forced to sacrifice one of his people to save the country from its terrible wrath. The king being a good and fair man decided it was only right that he sacrifice her, his only daughter. Sobbing the princess was too unhappy to eat and offered her meal to Sightless and Hobble.

“We must eat quickly and leave before the giant arrives,” Hobble nervously whispered to Sightless.

But Sightless did not agree, he was very moved by the princess and promised that he would save her when the giant came. While they waited, he requested a golden sword from the temple’s many treasures and asked that all the candles throughout the temple be lit. Although she was touched by Sightless’ bravery, the young woman did not believe the small blind man before her could overcome such a powerful and wicked giant with such meager preparations.

When midnight arrived, there was a crashing like thunder as the giant flew down the mountain to capture and eat the princess. Sightless quickly closed the door to keep the monster out. Seeing the door slam shut and light still glowing brightly through the windows of the temple, the giant became angrier and angrier. No one could deify him like that!

“Who closed the temple door?” boomed the giant. Hobble and the princess quivered with fear, but Sightless drew himself up proudly.

“I did!” yelled the blind man.

“Who are you and is your liver so big that you are brave enough to close the door against me?”

Sightless, thinking quickly, threw the large rice basket out the door and announced, “This is my liver!” The giant was amazed at the size of his opponent’s liver.

“That cannot be,” he shouted. “Give me more proof of your size and power!”

“Here is my comb!” replied Sightless throwing the rake out the door, “And my hair!” followed by the rope. The giant was startled but not yet convinced.

“Show me one of your fleas!” he demanded.

With that the blind man threw the tortoise out the temple door. “Here is a flea from my body!” The giant was becoming more and more alarmed.

“Put your head through the door and you will see what a great and powerful adversary I am!” Sightless called to the giant. Curious, the giant knelt down and pushed the door open with his great hand then stuck his head through.

“You are not so mighty!” he laughed, as he reached for the terrified princess before him. With the golden sword raised, Sightless stood ready at the side of the door. Before the giant had time to react, the blind man brought the sword down with all his strength, neatly severing the giant’s head from his shoulders.

As the blood gushed forth, the princess slumped to the floor with fear and relief. Hobble, suddenly filled with bravery, leapt up, grabbed the sword from Sightless, and started hacking at the dead giant’s neck. Sightless bowed respectfully before the young woman.

“We have killed the giant, my Princess. He will never terrify you or your kingdom again.”

Gratitude filled the young woman. “I will tell my father how you have saved me and our people,” she said. “Here, take this to help you with your travels,” she continued, handing Sightless and Hobble a large bag of gold. Bowing the two friends went on their way.

Having traveled far, Sightless and Hobble felt safe from being captured by their old master and decided to rest in the shade of a Phnoeuv tree while they divided their gold. Hobble began to make two piles of gold. Knowing that Sightless could not see, he made the pile in front of himself much larger. But Sightless was clever and knew his friend well so when Hobble was finished sorting, Sightless smiled.

“I want the pile in front of you,” he said.

Hobble was surprised but quickly replied, “Just a minute, the two piles are not equal,” and he cunningly switched them. Now the larger pile was in front of Sightless. Knowingly,

Sightless told his friend, “I’ve changed my mind. I’d like the pile in front of me instead.”

At that moment, a Phnoeuv fell from the tree and hit Sightless on the head. Thinking that Hobble had hit him, Sightless lashed out and kicked his friend’s lame right leg. Miraculously, the leg became straight. Unaware, Hobble retaliated by punching Sightless in the eye. Out of which Sightless could now see. But Sightless was still angry and kicked Hobble in the left leg, which also straightened. Not to be outdone, Hobble punched Sightless in the other eye and Sightless began to see from that eye as well.

The two friends were so amazed that Hobble could now walk and Sightless could now see that they forgot their quarrel and danced for joy. Gathering equal shares of the treasure, they decided to celebrate their good fortune by visiting the nearby city where the princess’ father was king. They bought new clothes and traveled unhindered throughout the city’s streets admiring the capital’s beautiful sights.

Nearing the center of the city, Sightless and Hobble came upon a procession of the king’s mighty soldiers. At the front, a crier was calling out, “Who are the brave strangers who saved our citizens from the wicked giant?”

Hobble and Sightless humbly went forward and introduced themselves. The crier bowed to the two men and said, “You are wanted by the King.”

The soldiers lifted Sightless and Hobble into the king’s royal litter and carried them in splendor to the palace. The king was overjoyed to meet the mighty heroes who had saved his daughter and kingdom.

“I wish to invite both of you to live in my kingdom forever as the honored guests of my people,” he told Sightless and Hobble. “Because you are no longer blind and lame, you will be welcomed into every home in the land as Brave Warrior and Loyal Friend.”

The two friends were overjoyed with their good fortune and celebrated with light hearts and confidence in their bright future.

What Lies Within

Jules tucks the steak under her shirt, sliding the package between her stomach and waistband to secure it. She checks herself in the mirror the grocery store thinks makes their measly produce selection look more plentiful. Nothing’s amiss. The only benefit of being fat is that shoplifting is so easy. She pays for the liter of cream soda and french fries, then slouches her shoulders, drops her head, and walks out the door. The security guard glances her way, but she knows she’ll never be stopped. People are too embarrassed to point to her lumpy rolls and accuse her of harboring anything that’s not hers. If she doesn’t make eye contact, she’s invisible.
The meat is cold against Jules’ bare skin, but if she concentrates on other parts of her body, she can tolerate the two block walk home without readjusting. She smiles internally. Friday nights are pristine! No one invading her space for two whole days.
“This place sucks,” she thinks, jiggling the key and repeatedly lifting the door handle to her apartment. After graduating from business school, she vowed to leave this crappy small town, but here she is. When she finally finds the right combination of motions and is allowed entrance, her orange tabby Stanley circles her legs, purring.
“I’m better than this,” she spits, throwing the keys across the kitchen counter. With one smooth movement, Jules turns the oven to preheat, fills a plastic cup with ice, then pops the lid off a can of cat food that she’s pulled from a stack in the corner by the microwave. Stanley jumps up and begins to lick off the gelatinous goo that is on the top.
“Eww! You are such a pig!”
He looks at her with eyes that say, “You’re one to talk.” She pulls the can from under his nose and drops it next to the water dish on the floor.
After pouring herself some soda and simultaneously broiling the steak and baking the fries, an anomaly that has become possible after the super fixed her oven, Jules allows herself to melt into the barcalounger her dad couldn’t take to the home. She has twenty minutes to chill before her food is done, and she starts the movie. It’s been a shitty week, so tonight it’s her favorite, Amélie.
Jules scrutinizes her one-bedroom. Sagging green couch covered in cat fur along one wall. A free bookshelf she found on 3rd Ave. holding her TV and movies on the other. Two mismatched end tables, a torch lamp, and a fading picture taken when her mom still thought family portraits were important, complete the ambiance of crap. If the place started on fire, Jules is certain the movies would be the only thing she’d grab before she ran out.
The timer rings, saving Jules from actually thinking about torching the place, which is a bummer. She reaches for the hot pad she just got at Goodwill and just loves because the Eiffel Tower on it and decides that it’s another keeper. Dumping the fries on her plate, Jules marvels at how elegant they look then pokes the steak. It needs more time.
The Amélie CD is hidden between Shaun T’s INSANITY and The Biggest Loser Ultimate Workout, so when Jules gets back to her fries, guilt has eaten away at her appetite. “Skinny people are evil,” she declares, lifting a fry to her mouth. It tastes greasy and is less crispy than it looks
After the movie studio’s tada music plays, a cheery, rolling accordion follows along as short, quick scenes lead through the beginning of Amélie’s life. Jules wishes she was the delightful French girl mugging for the camera during the opening credits. Getting the hang of subtitles and eating takes a bit, but soon Jules is mesmerized and doesn’t even realize they are speaking a different language.
Just as the narrator discloses that soon Amélie’s life will change forever, Jules remembers her steak. She rushes to retrieve her dinner and is back to discover, along with the main character, the wonderful old tin box behind the bathroom tile that starts Amélie on her journey to find its owner.
Amélie’s first thought is to visit her quirky red-haired neighbor, Madeleine. When she knocks on the door, Jules swears she hears a similar knock on her own. No one has visited Jules since Mattie once dropped by unexpectedly, but she put a stop to that. She checks the peephole anyway to confirm she actually was hearing things. Stanley takes this opportunity to twirl around Jules’ legs. She strokes his fur then stands to watch the next scene, but something’s wrong. Everything in the apartment looks fluid.
Jules reaches toward the wall to steady herself and finds it covered in fancy red wallpaper and knickknacks. The clutter of Madeleine’s movie home has laid itself over the scarcity of Jules’ real home. In the center of the room, at a small square table sits Amélie with her neighbor across from her drinking port and speaking of how her heart was broken after the death of her cheating husband. Even the creepy stuffed dog from the movie is there pining at the picture of his deceased owner.
Jules turns to open the door for some fresh air and knocks into a side table. Stanley gets underfoot and she can’t keep her balance. Falling to the floor, she screams.
End credits are scrolling down the screen when Jules startles awake. She is sitting on the couch with her empty plate on her lap. The time shows 12:30 on the CD player. Amelie should have ended a long time ago. Jules tries to remember what happened after she fell and can only get as far as the scream. Panic arises then calms when Jules sees the door has been shut, and Stanley is curled up tight on the chair. Oh well, she thinks, rubbing her eyes. But the memory of that damn stuffed dog sitting in her living room can never be erased.
____________

“How’s it?” Jules nods at Mattie, who’s standing in her station struggling to feed paper through the slit of the receipt thingy. It has some fancy bank name, but Jules hates pretension.
“Sup?” Mattie asks by way of an answer.
Lately they’ve been communicating like guys. Mattie slams her cash drawer. “Ten minutes. It took me ten minutes of my precious life to set up. This place is fucked! I should just quit.”
So much for no messiness, Jules thinks as she turns toward her own station and tries to sound unfazed, “Yep, you should.”
”You just missed Mr. Lancet. He came down from his lofty tower and was totally clueless.” Mattie raises her voice to a Mickey Mouse level. “Why would Wells Fargo build a location down the street from my bank?” Then lowers it down again. “I’ll tell you why you nimrod. No one even knows we’re a bank. How could they? People’s Future sounds like we have little kids here.”
“Or sperm,” Jules chimes in, which starts them both giggling. Jules clutches at her shaking gut, trying to resume the guy coolness but can’t.
“Miss Turner.”
Her blood freezes.
“Yes, Mr. Leavitt.”
Jules looks up into a pair of dark blue eyes which expertly match a patterned tie that accentuates a deep gray suit draped over a broad pair of amazing shoulders, which…
“Please, call me Luke.”
“Okay, Luke.”
“Would you unlock the front door?”
“Oui… I mean yes,” she purrs and walks slowly to the door, giving him a chance to take her all in.
On her way back to her station, Jules’ eyes scan the bank, hoping for another Luke encounter.
“He went upstairs,” Mattie says.
“Oh.”

For the last half hour, Jules has pulled her stomach in so her customers don’t hear it growling and isn’t in the mood to pretend to be anything anymore. She plops on the chair across from Mattie and moans, “God, I’m hungry. They must be making Egg McMuffins smaller than they used to.”
Their breaks overlap by fifteen minutes, which is usually way too much time to listen to Mattie’s endless well of problems, but is perfect today. What happened Friday night trumps anything Jules’ coworker can come up with so before Mattie starts in, Jules asks nonchalantly, “When you’re watching a movie, do you ever feel like it, umm… comes alive?”
Mattie’s head perks up. Jules rarely asks her anything. “Oh yeah,” she nods, “the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park were so scary they made me shit my pants, literally.”
“No, not like that,” Jules mumbles between bites of her ham and cheese sandwich, “alive… like in the room… like you can touch them alive.”
“What are you talking about? That can’t happen.”
“Yeah, but what if it did?”
Mattie shakes her head like she’s scolding a puppy. “I told you you got to get more exercise. The circuits of your brain can only handle getting limited oxygen for so long. I read this article in Shape that said obesity could be a cause of Alzheimer’s. Is your dad fat?”
Jules flinches at the mention of her dad.
“Never mind,” Mattie continues, regretting she brought up the Dad thing, “not to be rude or anything, but do you ever get any exercise?”
Jules can’t believe she asked! Ever since Mattie lost six pounds going to Curves, exercise is her cure for everything.
“Do you think I get any exercise?”
Mattie leans back in her chair. “I get it. You want me to back off. But Jules, movies coming alive isn’t normal, you got to do something, and exercise is better than going to a therapist any day. They’re all quacks who can’t cure their own stuff.”
Jules knows Mattie is right. She doesn’t want to go to a therapist.
“Okay, so what kind of exercise do you think I can do?” Jules emphasizes the word “I” and holds onto to the part of her thighs that flows over the edges of her chair to prove her point.
“Have you ever done any exercise?” Mattie asks tentatively.
“We were forced to in PE.”
“Alright that’s good. Did you like anything?”
High school amnesia is a gift Jules gave herself long ago. All people are cruel, but throw that many in a building for eight hours a day then mix them up every hour on the hour, and the torture never ends, especially for the fat girl.
“I don’t know maybe I liked swimming.”
“Then go tonight. There’s a pool by the middle school.”
“I have to visit my dad tonight.”
“Then tomorrow during lunch,” Mattie’s face explodes. “Shit! I’m late.”
Mattie rushes out of the room before Jules can protest.
“Crap!” Jules says to herself, “Mattie will never let this one go.”
____________

Jules always called the wall color at Rolling Hills Care Facility bucolic blue. It sounded fancy, until she looked up the definition of bucolic. There is nothing down these halls that is “related to the pleasant aspects of the countryside.” Unless the countryside is littered with drooling old people in wheelchairs and smells like stale urine, then bucolic it is. Jules takes a wide berth around the guy sitting in the hall; the vacancy in his gray eyes gives her the creeps.
But long boney fingers painfully latch onto her upper arm. Oh no! She always forgets about the mobile ones. Jules is held tight by a tiny woman with six strands of cotton candy hair teased high on her head and a bag lady coat.
“Thank goodness the language of business is English,” the woman says in a cheery, fake voice. “We have the British to thank for that.”
“Huh?” grunts Jules.
“I see you need me. Come to my office. We’ll talk.”
“No!” Jules tugs herself away.
The woman deflates. “Silly Sally,” she chastises herself. “You are so stupid. Silly, silly Sally.”
Jules feels kind of bad but doesn’t have time to waste. The only reason she can stomach visiting her dad at all is that she promises herself she only has to be there for half an hour. If it’s any less, she knows the nurses talk about what a horrible daughter she is. Last week, one of the new perky ones had the nerve to tell Jules to cheer up.
“If you’re happy, they’ll be happy,” she said.
Jules puts on a smile and walks into the starkness of her dad’s tiny room. A man she barely recognizes anymore turns and growls, “Margaret, I’m ready to go.”
White gossamer hair flies in all directions, as he struggles against the straps wrapped around his wrists and ankles. Over the last year, Jules’ distinguished professor father has been replaced by the quintessential crazy chemist. The man who retired from teaching advanced physics at the university now sits in his underwear all day restrained, so he can’t run away and hurt himself or someone else.
“Dad it’s me, Jules.”
The man’s face contorts with confusion.
“Where’s Margaret?”
Jules cringes. She hates this conversation. “Mom, I mean, Margaret died seven years ago.”
“Who are you?”
“Julie Ann. Your daughter.”
“The fat one?”
“Yes, the fat one.” Jules drops into the hospital-pink vinyl chair. It groans.
“Aren’t you a frog?”
“What?”
“A frog, in France. Don’t you live there?”
“No, I’m on 2nd and Main in those apartments down the street from your house.”
“Oh. I thought you liked that Frenchie stuff. Whatever happened to American pride?”
“I don’t know Dad.” Jules closes her eyes. Her dad can’t remember what he’s had for lunch, but he always remembers to bug Jules about wanting to live in France when she was a kid. Now she wants to be living anyplace but here in this awful chair, looking out the overly tiny window at a town with no more interest than her sorry-ass life.
“Hello Mr. Martin.”
The thickness of Celia’s voice flows over Jules like a hot, dark, muggy night on a porch facing the bayou. It’s not like Jules has ever been anywhere near a bayou, but she’s seen movies set there and knows her dad’s nurse is the real deal. Celia once told Jules she was from the blackest part of Louisiana where women killed their husbands by sitting on them. When Jules thought about it it made sense; you might as well use what you have.
Celia sets down a tray of food, winks at Jules, and says, “Good eatin’ Mr. Martin,” on her way out. Each quadrant of the dinner plate overflows with something off color.
“That blackie’s trying to kill me, you know?” her dad says, lifting the spoon.
Jules flinches. She’d never heard him talk that way until right before the Alzheimer’s diagnosis last year. It was one of the signs that something was wrong.
“Here let me help you.”
Jules reaches for the spoon that is halfway to his mouth, the restraints won’t let it go any farther, but he lurches and whatever is on it splatters on her shirt. Jules wipes it off with the customary paper napkin always next to crappy food then sits back in the chair, waiting for her time to be up.
Instead of eating, her dad pulls at the straps again and again. “Margaret! Get me out of here!” he hollers. Celia rushes into the room before Jules even has a chance to think what to do.
“Mr. Martin, what’s all the fuss.”
“I want to go.”
“Now you know you can’t go,” the nurse coos. “This is where you live now, Mr. Martin. Your brain isn’t working the same way it used to, and the people here are helping you to cope.”
“Are you listening to this shit?” Her dad stares straight into her eyes. “I’m a prisoner. Get me out of here!”
Jules jumps up at the sound of his tray hitting tile.
A syringe is in Celia’s hand so fast Jules doesn’t have time to turn away before the needle pushes deep into her dad’s arm.
“Margaret!”
“It’s Jules, Dad.”
“I don’t know who you are,” he mumbles.
“I know Dad.”
Celia wraps her arm around Jules’ shoulder and turns her toward the door. “The brain can make you think some crazy thoughts, can’t it? You might as well go home, honey. You’re dad will be out of it until next Tuesday.” Celia’s eyes brighten with a smile. “Well, at least until tomorrow.”
____________

The sixty-something woman at the card table reaches out her bent hand. Jules gives her the three crumpled dollars she dug from the bottom of her backpack.
“Are you here for aerobics?” the woman asks in a voice that sounds very confrontational.
“No.”
“Then you’re doing laps?”
“Yeah, I’m doing laps,” Jules mimics.
The woman straightens each bill and lays them gently in her shoebox, covering it with a mismatched lid. She looks up and is clearly startled to see Jules still standing there.
“Laps are on that side.” She points viciously behind her.
Jules feels her thighs stick together with each step to the edge of the pool. The black and white polka-dot swimsuit she thought was so cute at the store during her I’m-going-swimming shopping spree rides up her crack like it’s on a mission to inflict pain. She tugs it out, hoping none of the women wiggling around in the shallow pool see her, but old people are so singularly into themselves that it really doesn’t matter. Jules knows she could be naked, and they wouldn’t notice.
With only an hour for lunch and a bean burrito and a bag of chips waiting in the refrigerator back at the bank, Jules tries to hurry, but when she dips her foot in the water, it’s extremely cold. She wants to bail but can’t. Mattie will check to make sure her stuff smells like chlorine.
Jules backs onto the top rung of the ladder and wills herself to go further as her stomach growls. This is crazy! Her insides protest. So she lifts her leg to get out, but her hands slip and blue comes crashing. Stinging water rushes up Jules’ nose, and while her lungs burn, her feet try to secure to the bottom.
“Just relax you float,” says the voice of Ms. Miller in Jules’ head. Her high school PE teacher likes to give her two cents’ worth whenever Jules is at her worst.
When she stops flapping and does what she is told, Jules’ body rights itself, her head floats above the surface, and her feet find the pitted cement of the pool bottom. She shakes the water out of her ears and digs through the backpack she left at the side of the pool for the plugs she’s bought. Thankfully the pack hasn’t gotten too wet from the deluge of water that tidal-waved onto the floor when she fell in.
“Crap!” bursts out of Jules’ mouth. She checks but the women aren’t looking, so it mustn’t have been too loud. “I friggin left them at home.” And Jules soon discovers they are at home along with her mask, flippers, and the nose clip she stole.
“This sucks.”
Jules pushes off from the side, trying to drown the voice of her mother telling her what a screw-up she is. Her legs kick automatically, and she glides. Jules’ body is weightless, some invisible force holds its heaviness. She flips onto her back and almost screams. The woman from the card table is staring down at her.
“You’re supposed to do laps!”
Jules sees the woman’s mouth move but doesn’t hear a word of it.
“What?”
“Laps! Do laps! In the lanes!”
“Oh.” Jules stands up and sees the red lines painted on the bottom of the pool.
The pool is empty, but the woman insists, so Jules points her body toward one of the seven lanes and pulls herself forward, using the doggie paddle. The water pools under her chin and splashes into her eyes. She wipes them clean and feels something fall from her head. The goggles stare up at her. She puts them on quickly, expecting a you-gotta-be-kidding look from the woman, but she is gone. Jules takes a deep breath and ducks below the surface.
Being underwater has always mesmerized Jules. It is a totally different world where the gravity of her life disappears. The two weeks of swimming that was mandatory in every 9th grade PE class was the best two weeks of Jules’ life. After she figured out she could wear a T-shirt over her swimming suit, and she didn’t have to do anything to float, she was in heaven. There were no balls to kick, places to run, or snide remarks to ignore, only slices of sunlight cutting through the clear blue water.
Jules does the deadman’s float until she figures it looks creepy then lifts her head up, takes a deep breath, and goes under again. Her left arm pulls her forward, then her right, then her left. She turns her head to breathe and kicks.
When she first learned to swim freestyle in PE class, Jules was so excited she told her mom what she’d done.
“Wow!” her mom said with mock surprise. “Now do something useful for a change and clean out the dishwasher.”
Left, right, left, breathe. Right, left, right, breathe. Underwater everything moves. Jules moves and the water around her moves independently, expanding behind her like leaves blowing from a tree. She reaches the wall of the deep end and catches her breath as she watches the waves subside. When the surface stills, Jules pushes off again and floats a bit before deciding to kick. This will be enough exercise for the day, she thinks, as she moves toward the center of the pool. It doesn’t pay to hurt myself.
The flash of light is so fast Jules can’t guarantee she’s seen anything at all. It swirls underneath her then disappears. Probably some piece of garbage or something shiny like a barrette or… Jules can’t think what else it could be so she lets it go. The deep end is not the place to focus on anything besides swimming. Jules kicks harder, but a bank of waves comes upon her and won’t let her through. Has someone jumped in the pool without her knowing it? She dives lower hoping to find a smooth passage, but shafts of sunlight twist and turn revealing the water’s chaos.
A patch of black cuts through the shadows, and Jules’ chest tightens. There is no denying it now, someone has to be in the pool with her, but when she stops to tread water she sees no one. Jules tugs at her goggles; they are beginning to hurt. Maybe I’m just seeing things, she thinks. Water splashes in her face. The surface of the pool will not still. Maybe this is how it always is. She turns around in circles, searching. Maybe swimming isn’t my thing, but I can’t quit now in the middle of the pool. Jules tries to calm herself, tell herself that it is all normal. Water doesn’t always settle. Movement isn’t always something.
Jules puts her head under the water and focuses on the lane. I need to get back to the shallow end where everything is stable and makes sense, she tells herself, and kicks as hard as she can. Jules’ body is tired and slow, and the waves toss it around. She lets herself stop. For a moment. Only a moment.
Out of the corner of her eye, Jules sees it coming. A blackness that sparkles as the sunlight dances off its surface. As it flows closer, it pulls together, forming the sleek body of an animal Jules has only seen on TV. The orca spirals around her then dives to the depths.
Jules feels every cell in her body tingle with the immense power of the beast. It is the first time in her life she feels tiny. Is tiny. Her blood pounds ferociously in her ears, trying to escape. Her heart is going to burst. She finds it impossible to catch her breath. Instinctively, Jules’ brain begins to reason out what to do next. If I don’t move, it won’t see me, she decides. Figuring it out calms her. Everything stills. Jules is okay.
With little more sound than the flutter of butterfly wings, a tower of water rises from the middle of the pool, at its center the giant whale. Its shining body twists in mid-air then lands flat on its side. The animal rights itself then dives deep. A tidal wave of sound, force, and fury smashes into Jules, sending her tumbling deep into a forest of bubbles. Head over heals she turns beneath the water, her blood instantly chilling when she catches sight of a massive shadow rising directly beneath her. Jules claws to the surface screaming.

Bolting upright, sweat runs down Jules’ forehead. Her bedsheets are soaked. Across the room her swimsuit hangs from the shower curtain, dripping on the floor. Trying to remember how it has gotten there, Jules absent-mindedly pets Stanley who lies sleeping between her legs. He pushes closer and a burning pain runs up her calf. Slowly Jules lifts the blankets. The skin below her knee is scraped a threatening red.
“What the fuck happened?” Jules murmurs.
The injury reminds her of the time she fell off her bike and skidded across the tar.
“What the hell were you doing?” her mom asked when she came home in tears.
“Nothing. It’s nothing,” she remembered saying which surprising answers both the questions at once.
____________

“Ms. Martin, I’ve called you in for some explanation. You’ve worked for me for seven years.”
“Ten years, Mr. Lancet.”
“Oh, yes, ten years.” The starched man before Jules clears his throat and shifts uncomfortably behind his desk.
“Well, I run a business here, and it is a very big job so there are rules and expectations.” He pauses. “Do you understand?”
Jules nods. When she came into work that morning, there was a carefully written note on her cashbox advising her that she had a scheduled meeting at 9:30 with the bank owner.
“The first thing I expect is that you to come to work, ready to work.”
Jules nods again.
“The second is that you stay working.”
Jules isn’t quite sure what Mr. Martin is getting at, but her ass is hurting from being crammed into a chair clearly designed for skinny people, so she says nothing.
“Good. Now would you tell me what happened yesterday?”
Jules is still trying to recover from the morning and can’t figure out what Mr. Martin wants to hear. “Umm… I worked all day, then went home, ate, and went to bed.” Though Jules can’t remember the exact details, she is positive this is what she did.
Mr. Lancet shifts in his chair causing it to emit a high squeal. Jules wishes she could smile, but the man’s face tells her not to.
“But Ms. Martin, you didn’t work all day. You never came back from lunch. Where were you after lunch?”
“I was here!” Jules blurts out.
“Ms. Martin, if you would have been here, don’t you think I would have known?”
Jules’ memory begins to spin. Yesterday afternoon didn’t she help Mrs. Conaway with the transfer to her son’s account in Denver? Or was that in the morning? Jules could clearly see herself picking up deposit slips that had blown on the floor, but was that yesterday?
“I’m sure I was here. You just didn’t see me. You never see me.”
Mr. Lancet clucks his tongue like Jules is a disobedient child. He picks up the phone and dials. “Mr. Leavitt, would you please come to my office.”
No! Jules screams in her head. No!
There is a knock on the door, and an amazing dark blue suit walks in.
“Mr. Leavitt, could you tell me what happened yesterday regarding Ms. Martin.”
“Yesterday Ms. Martin took lunch and for some reason, which I’m sure was unexpected and very important, and she didn’t return.”
“Did she call and say why?”
“No, but–”
“Thank you. You may go.” When the door closes, Mr. Lancet leans over his desk. “Jules, if you don’t tell me what happened I’m going to have to fire you. I know your dad isn’t doing–”
“I was here,” Jules says defiantly. “Now could you hurry this up, my butt is numb.”
Mr. Lancet flinches as if slapped across the face. “Okay, Jules,” he murmurs, then adjusts into a business tone. “Ms. Martin, this has been your third offense, so I am terminating your employment as of…” He checks the clock. “Ten o’clock today. Please gather your personal belongings. You have until ten fifteen to remove yourself from the premises.”

Jules keeps her head down and doesn’t make eye contact with anyone.
“What’s going on?” Mattie asks as Jules carefully peels off the “You go girl!” bumper sticker she stuck to her monitor for inspiration, and which has suddenly turned prophetic.
“I’m off,” she says curtly then walks straight out the front door with only a slight twinge of regret for not having the balls to get her lunch from the refrigerator.
Going to her apartment feels claustrophobic, so Jules heads to the only park in town. She spreads herself out on a bench as far away from the screaming of the playground as possible and closes her eyes. What the hell is happening? The craziness of the last few days smashes into her and tears that had been threatening for the last half hour break free.
____________

“Henry, leave that lady alone!”
Jules sits up scratching at her nose. A tall blond woman pulls a struggling kid up the slope toward the playground.
“Sorry,” she calls, “he’s so rambunctious.”
Any other day, Jules would have let it go, but her middle finger is up before she knows it, a smile creeps on her face at the shocked look it produces. Deciding a double cheeseburger with fries sounds good, she reaches for her purse. It isn’t there. It’s still sitting in a locker at the bank, and there is no friggin’ way she’s going back to get it. Lunch is going to have to be on Mr. Walmart today. The superstore is only a block away and always makes an easy mark. Jules figures it’s because the employees don’t care enough about their filthy rich owners to make a scene.

In Jules’ basket, between the loaf of bread and package of bologna she’s having for her main course, rolls a bottle of Snapple. She’s never stolen a bottle of anything before, but it looked so good sitting in the cold case. After sizing up the three items, she decides the concealment process is going to have to be done in the bathroom.
The meat fits perfectly in one of her bra cups, the bread in the other, and if she shifts them just right they are kind of the same size, but the Snapple proves difficult. It isn’t smushable. She tries it on her hip, but when she looks in the mirror only someone blind would be fooled. It almost fits in her armpit but not really. Jules entertains the idea of only drinking water, but after the day she’s had she knows she deserves lemonade. No one’s going to notice me anyway, she thinks, and stuffs the bottle between the meat and bread, creating the biggest uni-boob anyone’s ever seen.
She heads out into the store feeling confident. There is only a twenty-something nerd to get past before the doors, and he looks like he’d rather be home playing Halo than greeting customers. Jules slouches over, stares at the floor, goes for it.
“Hey?”
Jules twitches as a pair of brown loafers and blue dress pants move next to her.
“Jules, is that you?”
Before she can get away, Luke’s hand touches her arm.
“I’m so glad to see you,” he says. “I’m really sorry about this morning. I’m sure you had a good reason for not coming back yesterday, but Mr. Lancet was so… well, you were there. I guess, I just wanted to tell you I’m sorry and if you need help finding another job, which I’m sure you won’t, but if you do just give me a call.”
Luke’s business card is in Jules’ hand before she knows what’s happening. She stares at it for longer than is necessary, not comprehending what it actually means.
“Can I help you miss?” The ruddy face of the greeter stares directly at her.
“Um…” Jules stammers, as sweat drips down her forehead. Wiping it away causes the Snapple bottle to slide under her bra strap and land on the shelf of her stomach.
“Oh,” Jules gasps, “now you see me.”
“Miss?”
“I’ve been looking for the checkouts for hours with no one to help me.”
Jules tightens her stomach muscles, letting the bottle fall from beneath her shirt into her hand.
The startled employee points to the rows of cashiers. “They’re right there.”
Jules dislodges the loaf of bread and pulls out the bologna not caring who sees. She’s not doing anything wrong. The look on the cashier’s face is priceless when she lays the misshapen items on the counter along with the daily paper.
“That will be $11.36.”
Jules reaches for her purse and the bottom falls out of her fancy-pants plan. She has no money. Her first instinct, to grab the bag and run, doesn’t feel right anymore, so she goes with the only one that does.
“I’m sorry. I seem to have left my purse at home,” she admits. “Can I come get this later?”
The cashier tucks the bag under the counter with a nod.
____________

Jules smiles as she walks back to her apartment with her groceries. She convinced the bank guard to get her purse and is looking forward to drinking lemonade while searching the want ads. Her phone buzzes with a call. It’s from Mattie. She’s left seven messages, but Jules can’t stomach dealing with Mattie being upset, so she sends it to voicemail.
The phone rings again. This time she answers, two calls right in a row means there is an emergency, and that’s hard to ignore.
“Hello,” she says.
“Jules are you alright?”
“Yeah. Are you?”
“Well, yeah,” Mattie replies, “but I’m not the one who blitzed-out yesterday.”
“Neither am I.”
There is a pause on the other end of the line; Jules thinks they might have been disconnected.
“Do you remember what happened at the pool?” Mattie finally asks.
Jules has buried the weird stuff from the day before, but leave it to Mattie to dig it up again.
“Um…”
“You don’t remember,” Mattie says, matter-of-factly. “When I heard you were fired, I went to the pool to see if something had happened there. The woman who runs the place told me you swam all over the pool for about thirty minutes, and when you got out you slipped on the wet floor, scraping your leg up real bad. You wouldn’t let her call you a cab, and you seemed out of it. She was really worried, and was glad to hear that you’re alright. We thought maybe you pushed too hard. You know, this being the first time you’ve exercised in a while.”
Jules takes a deep breath. “Hmm… that explains a lot.”
“Do you want me to come over? We could talk,” Mattie suggests, her voice tinged with hope.
“Naw not tonight, I have plans. Are you open tomorrow?”
“Sure.”
“Come then.”
____________

As Jules walks home, the sun lowers itself toward the horizon to eye level. She has to squint to see anything at all. Within the blurred sunbeams, the neighborhood she knows slowly stretches upward covering the sky. Jules can’t decide if it’s a trick of the stark light, or the buildings really are growing around her. The smell of fresh mowed grass is replaced by a pungent mix of sewer gas and roasting peanuts. On the next corner, a steaming food cart appears in place of a bank of mailboxes. The street comes alive with horns and engines racing to the next stop. People rush past, shoving their way to the next destination. Waiting for an opening to cross, Jules feels the subway rumble beneath her. There is movement everywhere.
Jules finds herself in an area where even the air is covered with grime. A homeless man huddles in the barred doorway of an abandoned building, two cigarettes hanging from his mouth. Laughter escapes the open door of the Manhattan Gentlemen’s Club. Jules picks up speed.
“Hey, ain’t you a big thing.”
The sidewalk is blocked by a man in a red fedora and skin tight pants. He slides forward getting too close. Way too close. His eyes move slowly over Jules’ skin.
“Why don’t you come in, have a few laughs, and see what happens. You look like you got nothin’ better to do.”
“No.” Jules pushes past him. “You’re wrong.”
She crosses to the other side of the street. Up ahead the wall of buildings gives way to a dynamic sky. A wash of red stretches across a darkening blue with black tree branches reaching to hold it to the ground. Jules recognizes Central Park. It is the center of many movies, and though she knew it existed somewhere, she’s only seen it on a screen.
Her body makes a familiar turn. The doorman nods. “Good evening, Miss Jules,” he says.
The hallway she enters is a soft gentle blue. Jules dodges a piece of luggage left sitting against the wall and turns to see a homeless woman reaching for her arm. The force of the woman’s grip is startling.
“Oh good! You’re back!” she exclaims. “Do you want to come to my office?”
“Not now,” Jules replies, patting the wrinkled hand on her arm, “I’ll come later.”
“Okay, later.”
The woman walks away chattering to herself.
From down the hall, Jules hears her dad’s voice, harsh against the gentle surroundings. A minute later Celia backs into the hall softly closing his door behind her. She sees Jules and clucks her tongue, “Honey, you might as well go home. Your dad’ll be asleep in minutes.”
“Yeah I know, but I think I’ll stay.”
“Okay, well if you need anything just holler.”
Jules opens the door. Framed in the window, the New York City skyline glows in the setting sun. Jules knows she’s not in New York. She knows Amélie wasn’t in her apartment, and there wasn’t an orca in the pool, but what she doesn’t know is what to do next.
She glances at her father. He’s asleep, lost in the tangled waves of his endless mind. Jules turns back into the soft blue hall and finds Celia busy writing notes on a clipboard.
“Umm…” Jules murmurs.
“Oh honey, I didn’t see you there.”
“I was wondering… do you have a minute?”
“Why sure. Is there something wrong?”
“No, well maybe. I don’t know.”
Celia lays her hand on Jules’ arm. “When I had that look in my eyes when I was a youngster, my mamma always asked me, “‘What lies within sweetpea, what lies within?'”
The weight of the woman’s words sinks Jules deep into a stillness she didn’t know existed.
“Can you help me?” she whispers. “I’ve seen some strange stuff lately.”
Celia bursts out laughing. “Better it be seen then hidden and wanting to be seen.”
“Yeah,” Jules breathes out, “I think you’re probably right.”
The End

the blind frog

sits on the edge of the pond called boring

tongue tasting wings on the flickers of light he catches
this is his daily, his daily, his daily, routine
since his tadpole self grew legs and ascended
to this very lily pad at the edge of the pond called boring

“hey you there!” an unexpected voice calls
to surely someone else for this pond is called boring for a reason,
but persistence speaks again, “frog are you going to answer me?”
silence gives pause, there is only one frog on one pond,
one frog who’s routine does not include a persistent voice

“me?” the question floats out on the only
pond he’s ever floated on, and returns frustrated from the shore
“of course you, you’re the one I’m looking at fool.”
“but I can’t see,” the words struggle in the throat of the frog
for they have never floated out loud to another’s ear.

“nothin’? you can’t see anything’?” finally, a question with a complete answer,
“flickers and shadows, yes, but nothing more,” moans the frog.
“well, do I have a deal for you!”
who among us can resist those tempting words? certainly not a blind frog
knowing nothing of the ways of the world, so the deal was made,

one green lily pad to the persistent voice, to float an escape across the pond,
for one pair of magic glasses to the blind frog, to see what one needs to see
the pond, the sky, the birds, the flies, the trees, the leaves
the frog lifts the lens of possibility to his eyes, “I see nothing,” he cries
“for nothing needs to be seen,” the rat replies.

oh, poor frog to be duped by one’s own wants.
by Sara Bednark

The World of Ice

 

The World Beneath the Ice

Once upon a time, far north in the land of ten thousand lakes, there lived a plain young girl with bright eyes. On a small farm miles from town, her family toiled day and night to provide food for many tables. When drifts of Winter snow covered the fertile earth, some who worked the land were called onto the frozen lakes.

Each year, the girl watched as little fishing villages appeared where earlier the warm water stirred, and asked her father “Can we go to the ice?”

Each year, he answered, “No.”

Until that wondrous year when the temperatures dropped beyond the imagination, and the wind howled and swirled and pulled new words from her father’s mouth.

“Daughter, today it is too cold to work,” he said, “and the ice is waiting for us.”

Mother wiggled the girl into tight cosy snow pants, draped a heavy coat over her shoulders, and laced up her oversized boots. A warm hat, fluffy mittens and a scarf tied around the girl’s neck covered her completely, yet when she stood outside the wind wound its way in.

“I’m cold Papa,” the girl said, as he loaded the truck with firewood split that morning.

“Just wait,” he answered.

As she shivered, the girl’s father pulled a trailer from a wooden shed the girl never dared to enter. It was home to creatures that scurried in the dark. On that trailer sat a tiny wooden fish house. No wider than the girl’s bed.

“Where will we put it?” The girl asked.

“Where the ice is thick, the luck strong.”

The girl shivered with excitement, today they would drive onto the frozen lakes. Slowly, they ventured onto the crunching ice, her father listened closely to its song. A brittle crack portends the worst. The girl’s heart beat fast. Would it hold? He father’s confident eyes, said yes.

They searched the frozen landscape and soon found the perfect spot. The girl played, shuffling on her boots, pretending to figure skate while her father unloaded the tiny house onto the ice.

“Come, it’s ready!” He beckoned her. The girl stepped into its dark, warmth and felt at home.

“Careful, my dear,” her father warned. “Do not fall in.”

As the girl’s eyes adjusted, she could see a shimmering circle of water. Her father had drilled through six inches of ice to find the hidden lake.

“If you fall below you will be in a world of opposites. Warm will be cold. Up will be down. And life will be toward the dark.”

“Why did we come now, Papa?” The girl asked, afraid her father had been tricked into danger by the wind.

“To capture the magical creatures beneath our feet. They will keep us healthy through dark months. And…,” a smile in his eyes, “to have fun.”

Her father handed the girl a pole as long as her arm, threaded with line. A silvery hook gleamed on its end. Over the point, he wrapped a worm saying, “We offer them a taste of earth and they offer us a taste of water.”

“How will I know if I get one?” The girl asked.

“Stay quiet. A shadow will appear to take a taste from your hook. If it approves, a nibble will become a bite. That is when you know to pull. But be quick, before it changes its mind.”

The girl and her father fished the world beneath the ice until the iron stove had eaten its dinner of wood. The girl had grown so used to the house’s comforts, she felt raw and exposed when rejoining the land of white and wind.

“Will it be okay, Papa?” The girl asked as she watched the tiny house become just a dot on the horizon of ice behind them.

“It will,” he said.

The girl and her father could not visit the tiny house often that Winter, but each time, its arms enveloped them in the feeling called home.

The years moved forward, as they so often do, and the plain young girl moved with them, away from the land of lakes. Her bright eyes now look West onto the rolling ocean waves. But nothing, not even time, can dampen her memory of the dark, warmth of the tiny house, her father’s wise and wondrous words, and the shimmering circle which opens into the magical world beneath the ice.

Frederick Takes a Ride

It was a clear sunny day and Frederick was bored. The days it rained were so much more interesting, scientifically speaking.

“Go have fun at the fair,” his mother said.

And because he loved his mother, Frederick said, “Okay.”

Frederick was really too smart for such silliness, but he listed each area at the fair alphabetically and made it a challenge.

First he went to the animal barns. The cows were boring. The horses. Boring. And the sheep. Doubly boring.

Next, to the booths where loud voices promised Frederick if he bought what they were selling he’d be the happiest boy ever. Frederick never believed such things and very politely said “No, thank you.”

Luckily for Frederick’s growing stomach food was next. He bought a hotdog-on-a-stick. A pickle-on-a-stick. And cheesecake-on-a-stick. Frederick would have bought more, but both his hands and his stomach were full.

Frederick was excited for the games. He planned to play them all day long. But on his third ring toss, he won a huge stuffed dog with a tag that read Max. Again, Frederick’s hands were full and he sadly had to move on.

Finally, Frederick reached the rides. His mother said he would love them the most. He examined each ride carefully, but none seemed right. He was too old to ride the floating boats. Uninterested in the flying swings. And too young for the twisty-turny ride that squished people’s faces as they whizzed past.

Frederick sighed. He was done with his list and it was still too early to go home. So he did what he always does when there is nothing else to do. He walked and he thought, and he thought and he walked.

Frederick was busy thinking when he felt the stuffed dog leapt from his hands. He bent to pick it up and said, “That’s odd. A toy can’t do that?”

“Are you sure?” said a voice that snuck up on Frederick. “Things aren’t always what they seem.”

“Yes, they are,” Frederick replied with certainty, as his eyes followed the legs of a man taller than he thought possible.

The man held a sign which read: Trip to Mars $3.00

“Want a ride, my friend?” the man asked with an expectant smile.

Not wanting to be rude, Frederick answered, “I guess,” even though he knew that it was impossible to go to Mars.

Frederick dug deep into his pockets and found he had exactly $3.00.

“Enjoy yourself,” the man said, pointing to a shiny red streetcar with curvy white letters that read Streetcar to Mars.

Before Frederick could wonder how it had gotten there, its brass bell went clang, clang, clang. The driver shouted, “All aboard. First stop Mars. Second stop Mars. All stops Mars.”
Frederick ran as fast as he could and jumped into a seat in the middle and quickly buckled his seatbelt.

“Don’t forget Max!” the tall man shouted

Hearing his name, Max jumped over Frederick’s lap and thumped his tail on the seat, until he was buckled in tight.

“Whoa, how did that happen?” Frederick wondered.

The driver slowly turned and winked as Frederick recognized it was tall man. “Hold on,” he said.

Without so much as a sound, the streetcar lifted straight off the ground, and up into the white fluffy clouds of summer. Frederick saw everything. The horses, the hotdog stand, the top car of the twisty-turny ride. It was amazing!

“We are going to be exiting the atmosphere,” the driver announced. “Please put on your spacesuits.”

Frederick gulped. “We aren’t really going to Mars? The red planet? 34 million miles away? Are we?!?” he asked.

“That’s what you paid for and that’s what you’re going to get,” laughed the driver.
Frederick tugged and pulled and zipped their suits until he and Max were ready. Behind him, the blue Earth swirled in the darkness, becoming smaller and smaller.

“Might as well relax,” the driver said. “It’s going to be a long ride.”

“Relax! How am I supposed to relax?” Frederick asked, as a satellite sped toward them.

“Nothing to worry about,” the driver replied, making a sharp turn. “I’ve been conducting this streetcar since before you were born.”

“Mars,” Frederick said, his eyes gazing at the bright red orb that suddenly appeared in front of them. “Max, we’re really going to Mars!” Frederick closed his eyes and imagined all the interesting things he’d do there.

“Wake up! The fair’s closing.”

“What?” Frederick said sitting up, his eyes moving up the legs of a very tall man.

“We’re closing. It’s time to leave.”

Frederick rubbed the tiredness from his eyes. “Where am I? What happened?”

“You’re at the fair. You must have fallen asleep. It’s a shame too, with so many fun things to do,” the man said, shaking his head as he walked away.

Frederick picked up the stuffed dog he’d won and headed home. Stars sparkled in the dark sky. As Frederick turned toward his house, there was the little red dot he knew was Mars.

“I’m going to go there someday,” he said, “Just you wait and see.”

Max’s slobbery tongue came out of nowhere and licked a smile onto Frederick’s excited face.

On Fire

 

The match comes to life. A yellow flame dances near my fingertips. I light the long tapered candles on either side of the Buddha. Red on the right, white on the left. My meditation cushion waits in the center of the room. I set the alarm for thirty minutes. Finger the wooden beads of my mala. One hundred and eight sandalwood spheres threaded together to form one prayer. The strand is cold when I drape it over my neck. Its center rests close to mine. Sitting crosslegged, I close my eyes, breathe low within myself, then even lower. The next breath dives deep beyond my body, and I am still.

I never know what will rise when I sit. Today, it is fire.

1.
The family story took shape gradually throughout my childhood. There was a fire. In a house. Lightning struck the roof. Old wood was eager to burn. Someone survived. Someone didn’t.

Two photographs, that appeared much later in my life, told the story more clearly. In the first, my great-grandmother as a young girl, her long awkward legs poking from her Sunday dress, is surrounded by three younger sisters, a brother in black knickers, and her mother and father. Their faces serious, but soft.

In the next, the mother sits rigid with a baby on her knee, tight lines creasing her forehead. The father rests his hand on her chair. A younger girl leans her body into him for support. My great-grandmother, a little taller now, stands apart, making space for the three children that aren’t there.

My mom knew the story, long before I did. Lightning struck my great-grandmother’s house when she was young. The children upstairs could not escape. This is why, when thunder rumbled at night and lightning flashed, my mom’s footsteps echoed up the stairwell. And I needed to climb out of my warm nest in the upstairs of our old farmhouse and move down, to sleep on the couch, where I was cold, but safe.

2.
At five-years-old fire found me in the fuzzy world of dreams. I dreamt our class filed into the seats of an auditorium. We were at an opera, enjoying the voices vibrating with emotion, when the alarm rang. Pushing and shoving, we all wanted to get out. I reached the main aisle, too late. The floor gave way and I looked down as flames reached up to grab me.

I woke up sweating, scared, my heart beating hard. My sister on the other side of the bed knew nothing. I shook her. “I can’t sleep. I dreamt I died in a fire,” I told her. “Just forget about it. Think about something happy,” was her tired eight-year-old response. But how could I forget? How could I? All my happy balloons were red.

3.
On hot summer days in the country, dry hay is formed into bales, then raised to the loft in the upstairs of the barn. The bales are stacked tight to make room for more. If the farmer has been rushed, by fear of rain or a wish to move on, the hay might not be dry enough. Then a chemistry of gases builds up between the bales to create a heat so intense fire breaks out. A barn can be lost to this spontaneous combustion in a matter of minutes.

That story came from down the road, and reached our dinner table one evening. My young mind sucked in every detail. A farmer like us, not far away, looked out the window to flames. The barn was full. Cows trapped in their stalls. Horses screaming to be free. A fire too hot for anyone to do anything. For nights after, I closed my eyes to sleep and saw flesh burning off of bone.

4.
In the middle of the night, I woke up next to fear. It had settled neatly around me filling in the cracks I couldn’t protect. My young son was no longer nestled under my arm, but down the hall in his own bed, miles away. To my frightened mind, a fire was a given. I laid there planning each step I would take to save the most vulnerable of my family. If my bedroom door was blocked, I would use the deck that connected each of our rooms. Smash his glass slider with my body, cradle him in my arms, then jump to safety.

Nights like these were not new. Planning my escape was always a challenge that confronted me no matter where I lived. Tenth floor of a college dorm. Down a long hall, in an apartment complex. In grade school, it was even an assignment. Map out your path to safety. But this was a problem I could never find an answer to. For eighteen years, I slept in a house where there was no way out.

5.
Dirt followed the truck that sped into the yard. It was a neighbor, a friend. “Your field’s on fire,” he told my dad. “It’s going to jump the road if we don’t do something.” Dad’s instincts immediately kicked in. “Take the four wheeler to the pasture, and stop its advance toward the buildings.” He told us. My husband and I reacted. We grabbed shovels and gunny sacks and headed toward the smoke. Dad followed the road. He thought the piles of brush he burned earlier had died out, but the wind brought them back to life and spoiled his plan for a calm afternoon.

Adrenaline rushed through my body. Finally, the enemy I lived my life fearing was right in front of me. It no longer lurked in the night. I was ready. And it felt good.
The temple bell rings on the iPhone. My thirty minutes are up. I open my eyes. The contents of the room have become crisp, clear. The angles of sun have moved to divide the Buddha into light and dark. My legs are slow to rise. I cup my hand around the flame and blow out each candle. Taking my mala from around my neck, I notice it is warm now. They say that wood remembers the thoughts, the feelings, the energy it touches, and holds it. Then fire, must be its release.

The Answer

 

Oswald wears his bowler hat tipped fifteen degrees to the right on the top of his head. He trims his moustache, exactly one third inch high and ten times as wide. He buries his victims face up, under precisely thirty-seven inches of deep, dark earth, making sure never to let his suit jacket reveal more than the recommended one half inch of shirt cuff while digging.

Oswald keeps his life of precision a secret, for his sisters do not understand.

“Straighten your hat.” They say.

“Moustaches are obsolete.”

“Suits, out of fashion.”

“Yes Annette. Yes Babette. Yes Colette,” Oswald replies to their observations, yet, still he quietly measures his life in spite of their criticisms.

Each of the three women now agree, Oswald’s skull might be a bit too thick for reason, for on this rainy winter night, he gathers the largest umbrella in the closet, tucks it deep under his arm, and walks stately into the gale without ever properly lifting it above his head. The wind and the lateness of the hour engulf the purpose of his task.

His sisters though cannot see that Oswald does have a purpose, just as surely as everyone who has been placed upon this earth. His purpose involves death itself. But not the gruesome death we see splattered over the front page of the newspaper, no reason to its presentation. Nor the messy un-talked about death experienced off the corridors of St. Vincent’s Hospital, on Market Street, in tiny rooms that buzz with fearful chaos.

No, Oswald respects the precision of death, in just the same way he respects the precision of the numbers he obsesses over so lovingly.

Unbeknownst to his sisters, the last thirteen days, Oswald has been rising at exactly 3:45 a.m. to turn and twist his favorite figures, trying to calculate the length of the perfect death. This morning’s answer was 295 seconds. Soon, he will know if this is correct, as surely as he knew the night before that fifty-two seconds was incorrect, for the face of the man he will bludgeon with the solid silver umbrella handle, will tell the tale.

Exactly forty-two minutes later, Oswald emerges from the dark, dripping crimson on the carpet.

“An umbrella,” Annette clucks, her tongue in disgust, “You should buy a shiny Colt 45.”

“Or sharpen one of the kitchen knives” Babette adds.

“You could use the ax you leave leaning in the garage,” points out Colette, the smartest of the three.

“Yes, yes, yes,” Oswald nods, as he walks past each, a smile creeping onto his face. For they are not aware that his purpose is now complete. He has confirmed his calculations. After precisely 295 seconds, the answer fell peacefully into his lap, and now lies exactly thirty-seven inches beneath the city’s feet.

Previous Older Entries

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

%d bloggers like this: