Fiction

Under a Minoan Café umbrella I watch the afternoon unfold around Chania’s Old Port, cahier reading put aside for the moment, a frappé before me in imitation of Magalee, wondering if I will ever really know her as David Montgomery did. She continues as muse, ever beautiful, ever inspiring, but strict in matters of discipline. Perhaps it is the game she has engaged me in: identify Persephone, challenge Montgomery, win her heart. She may very well be the Persephone figure that he refers to in the cahier, I cannot tell for certain, and she has provided no clues. Nonetheless, I dress her in varied mythical robes while she insists on revealing only flesh. Up to this point, just not enough of it.

We have discussed hiking in the foothills of the Lefka Ori, the White Mountains of Crete, where sky and earth overlap. On-the-ground research, she terms it, an adventure before she visits France.

The hour runs late, perhaps two a.m. I put away my paper pursuit of Montgomery. A mellifluous and hauntingly beautiful voice now enters through an open window and fills the room, wafting up like strains of night-blooming jasmine, pure and evocative, singing the song of a tamed siren escaping from the vinyl at Erato’s Music Bar down below. She is returning to her home island. Or maybe it is Persephone from the land of the dead. I have no idea what the words mean, no idea where one phrase ends and another begins, all but a lyrical uplifting of the spirit as the heart searches for understanding beneath a paraselena sky. While the music envelops me, my eyes are drawn to the Rossetti print on the far wall: Proserpine, the pomegranate bitten. Then I take the mother’s point of view. The unknown song I name The Hopeful Lament of Demeter. My own hope tells me that Magalee has arranged this as a prelude to her arrival here at the Pension

Ariadne. But she has not.

I reopen Montgomery’s cahier, and read entries for the month of December. I lie down again listening, and I cannot believe it, my eyes fill with tears. Montgomery and Magalee are in my brain and in this bed again.

*

The human imagination grasps at the effortless flight of hawks as they survey what belongs to them, and what belongs to them rises into endless heights and drops away over waves of airiness. Verdant undulations below their wings run northward to the sea. Above them, the towering peaks of the Lefka Ori blaze with white light as they reflect the pounding strokes of the sun moving toward the meridian on this day of the summer solstice.

Magalee has been here before. I have not. We stand together on the terrace looking up and down into space. A vapor trail rolls lazily through the sky overhead smudging the canopy of blue with a streak of smoky white.

Lakki is a crowning achievement. Tight to the fall line and held in place by force of will at odds with gravity and the aims of invaders, this peaceful village appears to have been carved out of blocks of mountain, congealed now in whitewashed concrete like an ice castle buttressed by sun beams.

Meskla, below us, gives the appearance of having fallen through time into specks of habitation, beyond which lies a valley of rivers and streams, and fertile tracts of orchard land. Here the caprice of engendering deities seems less evident.

“What’s the dome?”

“The Church of the Metamorphosis. Like an Easter egg, no?”

The bus full of early season hikers heading towards Omalos all but a receding echo, we begin. I take in the déjà vu of timeless Crete wafting down from mountain retreats. The scent of wild flowers, of pines, of distant upland herds. A dog barking. A donkey braying. Oblique sounds. Fluting light. Our footfalls signal caution against the sundries of descent.

We recline, half way down through groves, against the gnarled, twisted trunk of an olive tree, its leaves overhead shimmering like silver. A cool and welcoming place after the arduous trek through reaches with jagged edges and slopes where stones are shaped like bones. Surrounding us in the domed light rings the chirring song of cicadas, those relentless witnesses to our passing.

I feel a heightened sensitivity now in Magalee’s presence. Her scent captures all, even the dust. Locked in the moment, we are as immediate as the invisible cicadas and the heat of the earth under the searing eye of the sun. Only some benign and elemental design could have conspired to bring us together this way. We cannot, I feel certain, escape our own inevitability.

My mind arranges suitable images for her — playful Erato of the muses, Psyche of my heart’s lament. Endless potential. Since early this morning, the day mirrors her dressing up. Ever beautiful, even in jeans, t-shirt and canvas runners. Beads of perspiration glisten on her forehead like gold, and above her lips, a filament of light. And thus longing recreates itself.

“And so, mon cher Stephen Spire,” she says, giving me wedges of the orange she has peeled with long, delicate fingernails, “of Persephone’s identity what have you concluded? You have finally got beyond me, non?”

“Not entirely. But now I think Ramona. Her past is the stuff of legend. She also was involved in the underground during the Nazi occupation.

“As Rumora, yes.”

“She suffered at the hands of the Nazis. A young Heinrich Trüger was somehow involved.”

“I believe so.”

“There is the archaeological connection. She is a constant, fixed in Chania, and as archetypal mother, would more fittingly be depicted as Demeter, who is most usually identified as Persephone’s mother. However, if—”

“Your imagination works with effort.”

“Yeah, right. The details describing her in Montgomery’s cahier are very interesting.”

“It is true, David admired her greatly. ‘Like a goddess recently returned from the world of shades…’ I do not remember from exactly where this comes, but somewhere in it he describes her so.”

“It’s Ramona, then, right?”

“I do not think so.”

“Well, how about old Aphrodite Meirakis? She’s a dark figure. And mysterious in her crone-like movements. Montgomery had constant contact with her at the Pension Ariadne. She was aware of his being on the qui vive.

“A possibility, but—”

“Brought me his abandoned cahier.”

“Do you so easily forget that it was I who sent it to you?”

“No, I’m quite aware of that. Unlike Persephone, she was, I suppose, beyond being abducted and ravaged at this point in her life, that is if Montgomery was following the script.”

“This might have happened when she was a girl.”

“Really?”

“Ramona’s mother was abducted from her Safkia home by Ramona’s father.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“Cretan courtship rituals.”

“Odd. However, in spite of this fascinating possibility, I do not care to make such personal inquiries of Aphrodite, presuming that I could. I leave her free of Persephone. Along with Ramona.”

“And now you know, mon cher Steven, why I wanted to bring you on this venture, to make sure you do not take a wrong turn, or if you do, to make it seem alluring or at least worthy of your error. To take your lies and bend them into truths.”

“Your sense of direction is flawless, Magalee, all downhill.”

Voyons, voyons!” she says, and collects our things.

But true, I had no idea of the ease and grace with which she can move about these slopes. I resist getting up, for it means leaving a hallowed grove where, given the heat of the day, shade provides evidence that a presence continues to play hide and seek with us.

The bark of a village dog arrests our attention, then of another, much closer, in response. The latter assumes the shape of a Cerberus to which Magalee points. I stare with saucer eyes. In the fork of an olive tree, black netting used in olive collection has given form to imagination.

Magalee laughs, and when I turn to our descent, I see that she has disappeared. I feel a little the way Orpheus must have felt when he lost sight of Eurydice. I recall the lilt in Montgomery’s voice when his expression turned lyrical; and I wonder if in any way his kind of music ever charmed someone like Heinrich Trüger.

At the conjunction of goat tracks, one winding up parallel to the road to Zouvra, the other two linking Lakki and Meskla, lies the site we intend to explore.

“Little remains, it seems,” Magalee says as we approach.

“Just being here is significant.”

“For what reason?”

The imprint of an elaborate sketch of a Minoan burial cone in Montgomery’s cahier, dated Maleme, December, slides over the scene before me, an abstraction, now concrete. It may not be Knossos, but the site assumes a reality for me, with its own kind of historical claims.

“That’s what I’m trying to piece together. Montgomery again. The Trüger connection possibly.”

We enter a small shadowy recess, fashioned out of the side of a hill in the shape of a beehive, in what I, with my limited understanding, assume to be Minoan style. A long entranceway leads under a lintel stone; the cracked top of the cone exposes the interior to the corrupting and the resuscitating elements of nature. The building blocks retain the original shape, but living things eat away at the spaces in between, and rains have had their run of the place. Flowers abound.

“According to what Montgomery says in his cahier, twelfth century inhabitants of Kydonia — today, Chania — took to the mountains with all their belongings.” I ramble on, remembering other details he recorded in a catalogue typical of exploration notes.

Magalee listens patiently, and when I finish, she sits on a stone and opens our pack again, amused at my excitement.

“Why?” I exit and climb about.

“Why what?” she asks.

“Why did the Minoans of ancient Chania come up here?”

“Invasions,” she answers. “Marauders from Mycene, I believe.”

“I thought the Dorians were the marauders.”

Yes, one and the same. But no more than our beloved Napoleon, the British, and the Germans in 1941.”

Rejoining her, I take a pull on the bottle of water she unwraps from a towel and places in my hands. I touch the rough sandstone blocks to get a feel for the place, then go out once more to gain perspective. Magalee appears, framed by the lintel stone and the inclined walls of the entrance from which, on exiting, she plucks a flower. She smiles now as she hands it to me to smell. Then it suddenly hits home.

“This is an entrance to the land of the dead. The Secret of Crete! Montgomery made mention of the book innumerable times. Grave thieves, ancient and, as you suggest, modern. You, Magalee, really are Montgomery’s Persephone. I’ve changed back”

“And your reasons at this point?”

“It all makes sense, now that I’m here kicking up dust. And you, right there flower in hand, emerging out of the myth to guide me. Besides, many allusions to Persephone in the cahier are juxtaposed to your name.”

“It is true, David’s eclectic and imaginative mind could make such associations, and could lead you to this conclusion. Always, he was your mentor. But —”

“— but what?”

Mon cher Steven, I am not one to play the now-you-see-me, now-you-don’t game. You have made of Montgomery’s memory more than is warranted. You have made him, in fact, more of a foe than even Heinrich Trüger did. Believe me when I tell you, not once did David Montgomery call me Persephone.”

I have no reason to disbelieve Magalee, especially in matters concerning Montgomery. I am disappointed at how the theory begins to lose light again. Then Magalee asks the essential question when we finally head down the slope away from the Minoan gravesite, a question I cannot realistically answer.

“How could I, who was also deceived by him, have led you to David Montgomery?”

Three mountain streams work their way out from the recesses of the Lefka Ori, merge at different points, and at this time of the year rush riotously at full measure through the foothills, orchards, and villages towards Platanias west of Chania. Magalee and I come to rest at the second of these points.

“Immortality can be found in the mountains. In the waters of a certain spring. So say shepherds who go up there with their herds to the stone huts. Among them the relatives of Ramona who have come to The Minoan Café. This is something that your guide book does not tell you.”

“With you around, Magalee, who needs a guide book! But I read something to that effect in the one Montgomery left at the Pension Ariadne. A note, in his own hand.”

“It was I who told him,” she says, slipping out of her jeans. “Perhaps some of that water flows here.”

Barefoot, all leg and supple thigh, Magalee slowly enters the stream, and with cupped hands curls out water over her head. She screams with delight. Cicadas cease chirring, only to break out immediately in heightened frenzy.

She is quickly soaked, her t-shirt but a veil, her raven hair glistening with silvery tongues, her body therefore like a statue carved out of white mountain water and defined as graphically as desire itself. And then, with a laugh that deceives as readily as the willing mind believes, she splashes me repeatedly with cool liquid light.

Forever Magalee! Mischievous nymph. Naiad, naked in the dappled light. In the seething of this moment, the water is a caress.

“Take me,” I hear her say, but I know the words are my own, Pan proposed, long sublimated, still unvoiced. She becomes Medusa the Beautiful, mortal, but she who empowers stones with being, capable at any time of turning my thoughts into words. In the cup of her molded hands, hands that have touched the matrix, hands as delicate as immortality, she offers me water to drink.

Meskla.

At the café under nature’s canopy, where the cicadas have consorted with the song of the river rushing over rocks to entertain us, the tall Cretan with a moustache as wide and imposing as his smile, goes in to fix the frappés that Magalee has ordered.

“No, not like this,” he says firmly upon his return, and tells me how the Greek equivalent of Metamorphosis is really pronounced. I give it every effort before he retires, laughing, to his chair.

“Cretans have a word for everything Greek!”

Carrying a blue plastic bag, a young woman dressed in black approaches the café and sits at a table under an overhanging branch. She does not return our smiles. She will have only cold water.

Drawing in with straws the cool, dark coffee, we watch a shepherd drive his mindless flock up the road. An old woman bent at an angle of forty-five degrees carries a bundle of clippings down the road. Men with grizzled faces sit over empty cups moderating the heat of the day. That alone should keep them busy. They watch the old woman, the young woman, us, nothing in particular. They smoke, swat flies, share an occasional comment with each other and with the owner.

“So, who Persephone is remains a mystery. I believe, however, she was a pawn in the war between Trüger and Montgomery. A real person with a real identity that changes when the season requires.”

“But who is definitely not Ramona, and not Aphrodite Meirakis.”

“And not me.”

“You would have made a lovely Persephone, able to take me places I’ve never been before.”

“Mon cher Steven Spire, as with the myth, all is not lost. The summer months lie before us, non?”

A red, well-worked Toyota pick-up, primer spots highlighting the socialist decals on its fenders and hood, lurches up the incline and stops before us. The driver, a relative of Ramona’s that Magalee recognizes and greets warmly in Greek, is dressed from head to foot in black. His moustache rivals that of the café owner with whom he has coffee and a few minutes of debate.

The horn sounds. In the cab of the pick-up, we see a little goat gamboling about.

“Our ride back to Chania has been arranged,” Magalee states as a matter of course.

“How did they know?”

“Here they know everything. News travels on the wind.”

No argument, no discussion at all. We are connected to Ramona. Besides, in Crete generosity seeks you out.

The young woman, who is in mourning, we find out, for the loss of a child, rides in the cab with the goat on her lap, Magalee and I in the back, packs for pillows, our bodies cushioned by our lack of concern. What subtlety remains of Magalee’s fragrant scent gets whisked away with the wind. The scents of hay and dried goat droppings that linger in the box of the pick-up, these do not get whisked away.

While Meskla fades quickly from view, Lakki remains for longer as we catch winks of it on high through overhanging eucalyptus branches that fan out over us careening towards Chania. Between the two points, Risinia, where stones and bones point to openings that lead to dead ends.

“However,” I say to Magalee out of the blue, “I understand why some divinities assume the shape of birds.”

“But look,” she says, pointing back towards the golden white domes of the Lefka Ori. Two streaking fighter jets thunder northward across the sky like flashes of light. I lose sight of them in her smile.

*

The night runs late once again. The window opened wide, I lie awake, ears and heart primed,

seeking a reprise of that haunting voice from Erato’s Music Bar down below.

Nocturnal tom wailing in the night rises to the occasion: the aggressive challenge of the attacker, loud and dominant, at odds with the warnings of the attacked. Feline persistence. Endless. Then the spit and spat of tooth and claw. Or maybe it is the bite of love. Retreat, repeat.

I hear the thud of a stone, and then footfalls heavy along the corridor. I fear Montgomery has returned, but he has not. This is my room now. However, not entirely. I have yet to win her heart.

A quiet half-moon gives meager light to the coastal city, a place that reclines into the foothills at the base of the greenish-blue water.

As the man approaches, she braces herself against a parking meter, shaking so much it vibrates. He stumbles toward her, his workday shirt unbuttoned at the collar and the sleeves rolled up right below his elbows, revealing his forearms, muscles stretched as tight as guitar strings.

The whites of her eyes are like moons broken by dark volcanic cores. She screams, and the night noises of the city seem to deaden in comparison. She swings at the man and the momentum sends her flailing, wrist over shoulder, into a run in the opposite direction. Her long rust-colored skirt trails on the gritty pavement as she runs down the sidewalk towards Cook Street.

#

I only stayed in the dormitory at Townsville for one year of University, and then I transferred to a school with a better Economics program in Sydney. It wasn’t that anybody was outright mean to me in Townsville; I mean, it hardly happens that way anymore. There was only one specific incident during my first week at Uni, and even then, the poor blokes weren’t trying to be mean. A couple of guys were chatting one day in the toilets, and starting to get into it pretty bad. Then I rocked up just as Mike was cursing the other bloke for acting like a “goddamn Aborigine.” As soon as he got those words out of his mouth, he caught a glimpse of me in the mirror above the sinks and blushed, saying, “Look, Jae, I meant nothing by it,” and I said, “no worries,” because he just looked terrible about it.

No, the really dodgy thing about the dormitory was the loneliness, not the meanness. I felt it creep into my room from the first time I moved in, the stillness permeating even my sleeping body as I huddled closer to the wall on the tiny dormitory-issued cot, feeling that my room was as wide and vast as the desert. Every night the whole floor was noisy with wrestling and shouting and drinking and coughing, and girls sneaking out of rooms in the middle of the night. Nobody ever approached me. I wondered why I had even come to live here, all the way from Cairns, too many kilometers away.

Everlyn was the only other one here, in our dormitory, at least. It was a simple, accepted fact, and we both knew it, as did everybody else, but it seemed so arbitrary. What were we to say to each other? I knew nothing about her, where she came from, and she knew no more about me. I always came in late to the dining hall for meals, not wanting to be bothered finding a seat at a table next to a chatty bunch, where I’d be forced to sit on the periphery and make conversation, not for want of company, but more out of social courtesy. I got on well enough with people, but it really was work in itself, chatting with these new people in this new place. I brought a much livelier companion with me to my late lunch on this particular day, a book called Voss, which I was reading for my Australian Literature class. The book’s German protagonist, Voss, was a heady and prideful man, who got the brilliant idea to lead an expedition across Australia during the mid-1800s, only to have his men drop off one by one. He was eventually decapitated at the hands of the Aboriginals in the central western dessert.

I was at the part where Voss was sitting under a tree, realizing that he possessed a destiny far greater than the colonial village of Sydney, in which he was temporarily stranded before his expedition, and contemplating the great task before him, the first-ever trek across Australia from east to west.

In the dining hall, the tables were almost empty, just a few students in the corner drinking tea and chatting quietly. Everlyn, carrying an orange tray of spaghetti-on-toast, sat down at the table next to mine. I tried to go back to reading, but the words kept blurring and stopped making sense. I heard the swipe of her palm as she brushed some crumbs onto the floor. Everlyn had a broad forehead and a full smile, a soft nose, cutely rounded and pushed in. Her skin was coffeecolored; I wondered if maybe she was a half-caste.

Up through grade twelve, I had been in a school that was equal parts white children and equal parts Aboriginal children. Cairns had quite a high Aboriginal population, so it was quite natural to see our kind wherever we went. But it wasn’t the same at University.

Everlyn, with her soft face, continued eating by herself and averted her eyes from me so that finally, I became so intrigued by her that I actually felt the need to initiate a conversation. She ignored me, but I asked her again, and then I got us both talking, surprising myself more than anything else. She told me about her studies in Literature, and about her family, and about the poetry she wrote at night, poems that I would eventually read, that were so unlike anything I had ever read in my school courses, these poems of Everlyn’s which were not linear, but rather circular, and quite confusing. She told me that they reminded her of the Dreamtime, which I knew a little about from the tribal people that moved into Cairns from the Great Sandy Desert. I was not religious, but marveled at how Everlyn was connected to something, and it was something that I had come from, too.

“Spirituality is great and all that,” I told her. “But when it comes down to it, all that really matters is what you do right here, right now.”

“But we can’t forget the past,” she said. “We can’t forget the ‘why.’”

And I got curious, about her, about Aboriginals. She was the only person here that I called a friend, so, when in her enthusiasm, she enrolled in an Aboriginal History field class, I signed up right along with her. It was a weekend class, a field trip of sorts, out into the bush, meeting with the Aborigines and learning about the culture and the dreams.

We took buses about two hundred kilometers outside of Townsville, until we got into real bush country, where the ground became melon orange and grass came out in patches, where dust was thick in the air, thick as oxygen. The sun, unobstructed, beat down upon the hood of our bus mercilessly, until at last we came out, sleepy-eyed humans, onto the breathing earth.

We had two guides, Ainslie and Dugald, who took us out into the dehydrated fields and taught us some of the survival techniques of the bush and desert-dwelling Aboriginal tribes. We learned to make fire from sticks, to throw spears using the woomera, to throw boomerangs. Then we heard the music, the didgeridoo with its incomparable, outer space lull. Of our two guides, Ainslie was the older. He had a pear-shaped face like mine, and a dry white beard. His speech wasn’t eloquent. He relayed to us only the necessary information.

The two guides led us into a cave, beyond the field, formed in the downward slope of a hill. At the entrance, we sat down while Ainslie, looking like a mystic, waved his hand over the cave paintings before him, never touching the cave wall, but seeming to feel the grainy texture on his fingertips.

He indicated a painted serpent, thick and banana colored, on the cold, red wall. “This is Yellow Snake Dreaming,” he said. “Yellow Snake came out of the ground in the Dreamtime, moved, and made pathways in the soft, red earth, the largest of which is the Red River. Rain came and sank the other pathways, but the Red River so big that it held the water, holds it still. Then Snake went below the ground again, person who was Yellow Snake. Dreams of his waking pastime, his future.”

We followed the path of the snake across the cave wall, dropping below ground and back up again, the silver raindrops chasing at his tail, the rippling water of the Red River cupped in between curvy cliffs. Ainslie carried on. “The Dreaming,” he said, “is many things. It is the beginning of time, which is also right now, which is also in the time ahead, years from now. Two separate times; one time daily life, daily decisions. Another time infinite, circle, spirit world, being to us the laws, how to live on the land, how to interact with people of our country.”

But by now he had lost me, and I hardly had a clue what he was on about. The old bloke, talking slowly, was not agitated. Unlike our teachers at school, who spoke pointedly, desperate for us to listen, he was speaking only for those who cared to hear. I listened politely, but not grasping. He had no bullet points. He just spoke. The Dreamtime was the Ancestral Present. At the beginning of time, the spirits moved in a formless land like fields of energy, naming things and shaping things and singing the world into existence. The essences of the Dreaming were what we saw in the land, in each other, in behavior. It accounted for the Red River in the same way it accounted for a young child being temperamental. Essences of what had happened in the early time were left behind in the physical terrain of the land, in the dreams of the subconscious, in how a person was, in what a person did.

I wasn’t entirely clear how all these concepts connected, and I doubt if any of the white students did either, descendants of Europe, who had come over and lived in clusters on the coastal cities, hiding from the deserts, pushing the Aboriginals further and further into the arid center of their own country. Like many other religions, a bunch of abstract concepts were strewn together and believed to make sense, to transcend what is known scientifically and chronologically about the tangible world. On the way back to the bus, Ainslie began walking beside us, our three shadows moving across the chalky ground as gracefully as figures reflected in a pool of water. “Who your people?” he asked.

“Walpiri,” Everlyn said.

“You, young man? What is your country?”

“Australia,” I said.

“No,” he said. “Who your People?”

I thought about it; the beaches of Cairns, the tourists, the rainbow reef below the blue-green water. The flat that Mum and I had lived in above the grocery store with the grease stain on the hard wood floor, which Mum had covered up with a rug, ever since I could remember.

I answered his question, as best I could.

“I’m not tribal,” I said. “I’m from the city.”

#

She is running like an animal that has already been shot.

Turning around to see if he is still following her, she falls onto a rectangular concrete block, a raised structure lining the side of the Australian National Bank with purple flowers. She catches herself against the moist dirt of the flowerbed, the dirt repositioning itself around the obstruction of her hand. When she regains her balance and whisks her hand away, the dirt is rearranged, her eternal handprint in the earth.

Steadying herself, she notices a gash on her palm, a disruption upon her smooth skin from a piece of glass that had been embedded in the dirt. He stands still, panting, as she looks down at the gash in her hand, her fingers spread wide like a cat’s paw in a stretch. Silence, as foreboding as a thousand stares, closes in on them like invisible walls of pressurized matter so that they can’t move. Barely audible, the fall wind zigzags across palm leaves, the earth exhaling in exasperation.

Across the street, people are waiting at a bus stop. They stop talking and look up from their books, take off their headphones.

The man grabs her again. But this time, as he shakes her, something drops from the large shoulder bag that now hangs from her elbow, and lands clumsily on the pavement with a soft thud.

#

We spotted a desert bilby on the hill behind campus, its burnt brown color blending in with the dirt it sat on. It had been raking the soil with its claws, its long lean nose still touching the ground as we approached. “He’s a brave one,” I whispered to Everlyn. “These little guys can hear you coming for miles.”

“Is that Walpajirri?” she asked, walking around the edge of the clearing to get a look at the rare creature from the side.

These tiny creatures, with the upper body of a rat, the ears and lower body of a rabbit, and spindly extremities, were desert creatures, confined mostly to the north and west, where few humans venture. “What are you doing out here, little mate?” I asked it, more wondering out loud to myself and to Everlyn.

“We’re lucky to see one,” she said, crouching. Her hair was in a long brown ponytail, trailing down to the dip in her back, falling to the right of her waist as she leaned forward. “He’s about to go the way of his cousin.”

I stood up and surveyed the horizon, the city marina clogged with white sails and smokestacks; the hilltop overlooking the bay lay up and ahead of us still. Long, dry grasses had covered most of the path; here a tiny clearing had just happened to open up, and one of the country’s endangered species was sitting in the middle of it, unflinching, as my friend studied it. Everlyn looked bemused, tilting her head to the side as she gazed upon the rare rat-like creature.

Everlyn had become my closest friend. I could talk to her for hours and never feel like I was working at it, because I became genuinely interested in things, in her culture, in the history of her people which were, actually, in a way, my people, but a people of which my own Mum had never spoken.

Never happy in the dormitory to begin with, I now spent heaps of time outside with Everlyn. I would ignore the other students, and instead head off with the beautiful Aboriginal, the only other one who was becoming a part of me. We would go to the beach together, hiking from campus when it would have taken only fifteen minutes by bus, our feet becoming thick and chalky with every sandaled step upon the earth as we walked. We spent time wandering around the sloping hills surrounding Uni, creating our new Dreamtime, naming things as we went, as though we were the Ancestral Beings ourselves.

I hadn’t forgotten that in Voss, the protagonist had been captured by an Aboriginal tribe and murdered as a human sacrifice during the full moon. It was a spirituality of connectedness, but I could not get out of my head the rumors of the strange traditions the Great Sandy Desert tribe had had in my old town: the arranged marriages, the ancient methods of circumcision, the restriction against direct communication with one’s mother-in-law.

Everlyn and I would also talk about our fathers, both lost to us by the bottle, and make up stories for what might have happened to them. Perhaps they were together somewhere, regretful, crying with their faces down on the bar, mourning their children who were not stolen from them, but discarded voluntarily. “It’s the evil drink of the Europeans,” Everlyn would say. “It makes you violent, crazy; it makes you not recognize your own family, your own people. It makes you act out against them and destroy them. I never want to go near a man who lets it get to his soul the way my father did.”

As we watched the bilby now, the tiny rat-like creature started burrowing its way into the ground. Its long ears, which were almost the size of its whole body, disappeared under the brown and green arid soil and grass. “I never thought I’d see that!” Everlyn said.

She was always amazed by nature. “Look, we’d better get up to the top if we want to make it back for dinner, yes?” I said, grabbing her hand softly and leading her towards the top of Castle Hill, where we had come after classes to get away for awhile. The bilby had vanished completely from sight.

“You still don’t like it here, I can tell,” Everlyn said suddenly.

“I don’t like most of the people,” I said.

She shook her head. “You’re a quiet bloke in public. People get scared of silence, yeah? They don’t like when things are kept from them, no matter how mundane. In fact, the more mundane the better. It gives them the impression that your minds are the same.”

A pair of joggers ran by us in bright outfits. An orange cat with clumped fur sat out in the grasses beyond the Castle Hill lookout, watching.

“I’m not worried about those other people,” I said.

“It’s like a desert out here for us,” she said.

#

Everlyn cried when I left Townsville, appearing at my front door in the middle of the night like a watchful spirit, silent tears coursing down her plump and childlike cheeks, begging me not to leave her alone with all the white ghosts that haunted the halls and the rooms, the stone buildings and the overgrown pathways of the campus. Everlyn herself often spoke of ghosts, imagining how it must have been to live in a land for 50,000 years or so and all of a sudden spot a ship in the distance, a ship carrying men the color of spirits, the kind that you happen upon in caves or in dreams at night.

“You’re going to leave me?” she said.

I grabbed her hand and led her into my room, closing the door softly behind us. I held her close to me, her tears already wetting my shirt. She smelled like apricots. It was rare, sweet, but not overpowering. “Ghosts,” she said, her face still buried in my t-shirt.

“What?” I repeated, pulling back and holding her so that she could look me in the eye. “I don’t understand what you’re telling me.”

“Do I have to spell it out for you? You’re the only other one,” she said, collapsing once again onto my chest.

“Listen,” I said, gently. “You’re going to be okay. You’re strong, yeah? You’re going to graduate and get a good-paying job and support your mum and brothers. You’re going to be good, mate.”

This time she pushed herself away from me, and went over to my window, pulling the cloth drapes aside, looking out onto the grasses between our dorm and the next. A stray dog was moving stealthily in the night. She turned back around to face me, and said, quite simply, “I showed you my Dreamings.”

She owned several Dreamings, all described in vivid detail in her leather bound book of poetry. The Honey Ant Dreaming, the Kangaroo Dreaming, the Gum Tree Dreaming. Of course, there were many versions of these same Dreamings, but these ones were of her own home. She was worried, though. The Honey Ant Dreaming told of destruction, a destruction that had plagued her father and that she believed to be dangerous for her. I told her that my father had been plagued by the same destructive force. “You need to watch out for it,” she said. “It comes after our souls. Our souls that have been knocked down, that want to run but are fenced in.”

I looked at Everlyn, my only friend in a place that may have treated me as coldly as I had expected it to. What was I leaving her behind to? Like any little girl that I’d ever seen cry, her tears softened my heart, and even softened my resolve. But I knew what was riding on my success. It wasn’t just about me. And I wanted to make Everlyn proud, too.

In the delirium of the desert, she’d been with me.

#

She is yelling out in her mother tongue. As she grapples with him, he struggles to get around her and retrieve the item, which fell out of her bag and onto the pavement, lying amidst the grains of pavement, smelling of beer. Snatching it up, he lets go of her arm, but she continues to scream, pointing at him.

The sirens come quickly, and the police have arrived. She watches, still shaking, still frightened, as the men come out of the police car and grab him, grab him as he tries to run away, and wrestle him down to the stain-soaked pavement, his cheek to the grainy surface. From a facedown position, he is handcuffed and positioned, like a toy, into a sitting position in the back of the car. The people across the street are an active audience now, speaking amongst themselves, formerly strangers but now mates in a time of trouble, whispering, “Yeah, that’s another of ‘em.”

“Pissed again, it seems.”

One of the officers waits with the Aborigine woman as his mate uses the squad car to drive her attacker, a large Aboriginal bloke with nice workpants, to the police station She notices her hand, throbbing, still bleeding, slightly, from where she had cut it against a piece of glass in the purple flowerbed. She presses her fist against the bleeding pain, and glances back at the concrete block containing the flowerbed, where a red print gives a mystic air to the manmade creation. The essence of what has happened, of the Dreaming this night on the streets of the city, will work its way into the morning. Perhaps people sitting out by the flowers on their afternoon lunch breaks will happen upon the strange red print. She wonders what they will make of it, that is, if these people still believe, as she does, that the stories shape the lives.

#

After Uni, I pleased my mum by getting a job straight away. The only glitch was that I had to stay in Sydney, as my best offer had come from a bank that had its headquarters there. I bought a new flat on the outskirts of town, taking the bus to work every day. My workmates were decent and polite, and the pay was fine, but I felt the old loneliness creeping in again, and I sometimes saw my workmates stare at me as though they thought I were a bit dodgy, again being the only Aboriginal in sight for miles. So I knew I needed to start making concessions.

One afternoon, my workmates approached me as I was leaving for the day, turning off my computer and reaching for my jacket. There were three blokes, rolling up their shirt sleeves as the afternoon was getting hotter, smiling at me behind tanned white skin and mustaches. “Hey, how ya goin’, Jae?” one asked. “Hey listen, mate, we’re about to head over to Bully’s for a few beers. You wanna come with us?”

Being as Mum always raised me to avoid the bottle, and seeing how much good it had done Dad, I had never had a drop of drink, and I reckoned that was what had kept me from a majority of my social interactions back at Uni. But this time, I reckoned I was a man, and I would stop when it was time, and besides, I needed to stop blowing off offers of friendship, as
these would be my people from now on, as far as I knew.

And so I conceded. We walked across the block to Bullwinkle’s, a bar for business people after work, and a disco later at night for the younger people. We sat in a corner booth, the four of us, and my mates took several tequila shots. I only had one beer, which seemed good enough for all of them.

We started getting on like good mates. It was sweltering now, in the corner amidst all these people, so I unbuttoned my collar and rolled up the sleeves on my work shirt, right below my elbows. The boys were telling funny stories about growing up, about Uni, about wives and girlfriends, and it was quite an easygoing atmosphere after awhile. I listened with interest and laughed when they laughed. The mate sitting to my right leaned over and, putting his arm around my shoulder, turned the conversation over to me. “Jae,” he said. “Are you a tribal bloke at all?”

I told him I wasn’t.

“Then wouldn’t you like to know a bit more about that culture? It’s a pretty fascinating spirituality, I’ve heard.”

I told him that, as far as I had heard, it was.

“Well, aren’t you a bit more curious about your people?” they asked.

“Well, I reckon,” I said, but finding it hard to form the words now, as I was beginning to feel a bit pissed, my lips a bit bloated. “Yes and no, I guess. I mean, it’s not something I’ve grown up with. My mum raised me in the city and I’ve mostly had contact just with city blacks and whites.”

I glanced around at the interior of Bully’s. There were tables, and the bar, and trays, and spills and stenches. I fancied the idea of Dreaming in this new setting, this modern setting, with Dreamtime stories of bars and tables, of the stains left by spills.

Without being rational, I continued on speaking to the men who were looking so intently at me, as though I were a mystic, or someone foreign. “And my mum and dad were products of the Stolen Generation, so they didn’t have much left of Aboriginal culture to impart to me.”

The men were still looking at me, a bit cautious now. I guess it hadn’t helped that I had been such a recluse at Uni. Now that I was actually speaking to people, I seemed to be going about it the wrong way. “Yes, I just mentioned the Stolen Generation. It’s okay, mates. Next round is on me!”

“He’s pissed!” one of them laughed.

We all laughed, and got another round.

But now I wasn’t feeling cheery anymore. I found myself focusing in on certain thoughts, closing in upon myself in reflection. I thought again about the Dreaming. My very own ancestors had been around for 60,000 years, possibly even 85,000, in some areas of thinking. They had sustained themselves in an arid, vastly uninhabitable land for a long time; wasn’t something working? But then again, I thought, something was not working. If James Cook had arrived, advanced as the Europeans were at that time, to find the Aboriginals still in a primitive state, wasn’t it just as inevitable as Voss dying in the desert that the Europeans would eradicate the Aboriginals? It was simple Darwinism. I mean, it was the progress that had given us cures for diseases and might one day beam us all up into space to a new planet. Was that the plan of the Ancestral Beings? Was progress a part of a tradition that is always moving forward, and backward, and remaining in stasis?

If I was moving forward in a straight line, what was my less tangible course in the Dreamtime?

I quickly told my mates I must be off. It was becoming arduous now, sitting there with them, trying to be polite and maintain the standards of courtesy while all these thoughts were swirling around in my head, and also feeling suddenly like I’d begun to combat a slow lethargy, which was weighing down upon my eyelids and my balance. For most of childhood and Uni, I’d been a stranger to the bottle, and now even the tiny amount that I’d consumed was proving more than my mind and body could handle. So I paid the proper amount that I owed, and walked down Little Sussex Street to catch the bus back to my flat and my bed.

All this time, trying to advance myself, to be successful – and rightfully so, as there seemed to be no other way to survive—I had blown off being spiritual, I had covered my ears against the cries of my ancestors, had listened with only mild interest to the stories of my family’s forced entry into civilization, and of course, had taken for granted the companionship of the one person I knew who cared about these things above all else. These things I had considered weaknesses. I was an outcast. There was no fighting that. I always had been at Uni and I would always be at my job, and it would most likely never go away. The social airs I put on were out of necessity, and most likely, everybody knew they were fake.

The civilized tribe, or the tribal civilization.

Turning the corner at Little Sussex, I saw the bus pull away and realized that I’d made it there too late. I would have to wait for the next one in ten minutes. I stood at the corner and began gazing up at the moon, a half moon that shone like a pearl, as the sea air cooled the sweat beads on my forehead.

Looking back down, I happened upon a dark-skinned woman moving towards me in the muted vision of the nighttime. Her skin seemed to glisten with the moisture of the sea air; a rustcolored skirt danced with the uneven movement of her legs. “Everlyn,” I said, as though she might be a vision.

I was sure it was Everlyn. The proud forehead and the soft nose, the symmetrical teeth behind the full lips, the long hair let loose in the wind, wavy now and starting to curl in the humidity.

Her expression didn’t change. Her eyes were milky and unfeeling. She didn’t smile, but she did stop walking. When she stopped, she swayed on her feet like the buoys on the jellyfish nets in the beach water. She swayed in the strong tides of water that knocked her this way and that, and at first I thought that I was the one swaying, being that I was so pissed. But her eyes were restless and there were tight lines on her forehead, and she looked unwell. She was pissed, or something worse.

She held out her hand, palm up, the other resting on her hip. The skin below her eyes was puffy.

“Everlyn, are you alright?” I said. “It’s Jae, your mate. Look, I know I got a suit on, but don’t you recognize me?”

She didn’t answer. The look of her scared me, as though she had a fever and was writhing in pain beneath the sweat-soaked bedcovers, and I couldn’t help her.

“You’re a businessman now, then,” she said, in a voice that I hardly recognized.

“Evey!” I said again. “Look, are you okay? You look like you’ve seen a ghost!”

She began advancing on me, the wildness in her eyes revealing anger. “I need money,” she snarled, whispering hoarsely.

I realized that I was sick from the drinking; that my body was sleepy but my mind was wild with excitement, and I saw how beautifully dark she was, her wide eyes beaming out at me in the night.

“I was born into this world self-sufficient,” she said, reaching up to grab me by the collar of my shirt as I looked down at her, stunned, “and I am not going to hang onto anybody’s coattails or beg them for food that should have been mine!”

Then she shoved her hand roughly into my jeans pocket, before I even knew what was happening, and grabbed my wallet, screaming, “I’m taking back what you took from us!”

My desperation drained down through my neck and torso, trickling down my legs and out my toes. And I felt anger. I ran after her and heard the reverberations, unfamiliar yet eerily recognizable, like the sound of the didgeridoo against the aerial view of the desert in movies. I ran with it, and my anger grew. She had taken my wallet, and now I had no way of getting home, had no one to call, had no cab or bus fare. The streets were no place for a black fellow at night, there was just too much trouble waiting for us. And she, she was foolish for being out here, too, and in such a state.

As I caught up with Everlyn, I could see fear in her eyes, fear of me. I felt big and careless, as though in my state I were being too rough, though I didn’t mean to. I had started to cause a scene. People across the street, waiting for the bus, were staring at us. “She’s got my wallet!” I wanted to yell, but couldn’t form the words.

My throat was parched from the drinks. My belly ached, my legs crumpled as though under the weight of the sun, so that I began to shake Everlyn much harder than I’d meant to. The drink, that devil, had waited until now to hit me at full force. Delirious, I held onto her wobbly shoulders for support, but she pulled away from me and I stumbled forward, dizzy, the sloping ground falling away from my feet. Looking across the street, I saw the crowd of people huddled near the bus stop benches. Wearing work suits, their faces were glistening with sweat under the streetlights. They were people waiting to go home after a long day. Open-mouthed, some pointed, and some pulled out their cell phones. Everlyn looked back at me, screaming.

 

*This story was published previously in Diagonal Proof.

 

Contributor’s Notes: Anna Eggemeyer currently reside sin St. Louis, where she completed her M.F.A. in Creative Writing at the University of Missouri – St. Louis in 2011. She has been published in Green Briar Review.


 

Spray paint cans were piled up like fallen soldiers, bleeding in technicolor. The hum of spinning fan blades was broken by the clack-clack-clacking of a steel ball ricocheting around the belly of a survivor–and the hiss of its vitality escaping onto canvas.

Eric’s hands were stained and he wore a mask. All over the walls were bugbears and demons that at one time only lurked inside Eric’s head. Every now and then he would stop to sweep his eyes over the room, remembering the moment that gave birth to each image.

The door opened. Mia stopped short of entering. “Have you given any more thought to Berlin?” Eric tossed the now lifeless can onto the pile. “No. For the millionth time . . . I wish I could, but I have to get this finished for the show.”

“You work too much.”

“You don’t work enough.”

The door slammed. Eric looked at his feet and willed them not to run after her.

The apartment was dim in the twilight. Eric sat in a reclining chair, staring at the ceiling, trying not to call Mia. He had too many things to do and fixing that fuckup would take hours. There were a few more demons left to vomit onto the canvas. Some sketches to complete for the gallery walls. Some people to call. . . . His phone lit up with a text, pulling him from his thoughts.

It was from Mia. “I’m going. See you when I get back, I suppose.”

“Love you. I’ll meet you there, I promise.” Eric stared at the screen, waiting for a reply.

The room was dark, save for the glow of the street lamps outside. Eric was wide awake, eyes fixed on the ceiling. The show went well. He sold a few pieces, not as many as he’d hoped, but enough to pay the rent. Mia had been gone for a few weeks, extending her return ticket two times.

She’d been booking gigs at little clubs, gifting Berlin with her talent. It bothered him for some reason. Was he jealous of a city? Jealous that they could hear her voice? He didn’t mind sharing her, but not having any of her at all was unbearable.

He could go now, if he wanted. Go and meet her, go see what it was that she loved about that place. See her play. Fall in love again.

His phone lit up.

“I can’t come back to New York. Got into some trouble but I’ll be okay. Don’t worry about me. I’m sorry. I love you.”

He tried to call but there was no answer.

#

Eric’s flight touched down at Tegel at seven-thirty in the evening. He was at his sublet by eight. Mia’s phone had stopped working just after the text, or maybe she was ignoring him.

His footsteps bounced around the stairwell of the building as he walked down to the street. It was late summer but it felt brisk. Silently, Eric cursed himself for not checking the weather before he left, and for not bringing a coat.

The streets were quiet, he cut underneath the elevated train and walked down, through a park. Dark faces and eyes lit up in the crepuscule. Whispers came from everywhere.

“Weed? Coke? MD?”

“Nein, danke.”

The bars in Kreuzberg were empty, nobody here goes out before midnight. Eric wandered the blocks. Someone would have seen her, she’s hard to miss. Stunning, black hair, eyes that will break your heart before you can look away. It’s not that big of a city. . . He crossed a canal and found a hole in the wall, one amongst hundreds. The beer was cold and it washed away some of the jet lag.

#

An English accent drifted across the room. “No, that’s not right. Not at all.”

Eric turned his head to see two people leaning against the bar. The smaller of the two had sandy hair and a large brown beard. The taller one, the one doing the talking, had black hair and a face that looked like it had spent too many years on the fun end of a coke spoon.

Black hair continued a rant. “You can’t do that. You can’t ever fuck a deal up with him because if you do, you will end up in the fucking Spree . . . In a ditch . . . or, well, fuck, I don’t know . . . maybe in a few different parcels mailed to Abu Fucking Dabi. You need to make it right, mate, and you need to do it now.”

“Eh, yeah.” The sandy haired one sounded Australian, but Eric was shitty with accents and he couldn’t tell for sure.

“Good. Now go pay the man.”

Eric scooted his stool a bit closer and asked, “You from England?”

“Eh? Yeah. Live here though. You?”

“New York.”

“Oh. Not a bad city. Far better than the rest of that fucking country.”

“You won’t get any arguments out of me.” Well, a few, but this wasn’t the time.

“Here on holiday?”

“Yeah. Sort of. Looking for my girlfriend; we were supposed to come over for a vacation and I couldn’t make it. Long story. I got a text from her a couple days ago, then her phone stopped working.”

“Shit. Sorry to hear it.” There was a hint of sympathy. It took Eric entirely off guard.

“Thanks. My name’s Eric.”

“Michael.” He reached out and shook Eric’s hand. “So you’re looking for your lady?”

“Yeah, she’s a musician and when we were first planning the trip we had a few clubs that she was going to play at. Do you recognize these?” Eric showed him a list that he’d typed into his phone.

“Some of them. Is she a DJ?”

“No. Well sometimes, but mostly she’s a jazz singer.”

“No shit? There was a girl singing jazz the other night. Absolute fucking knockout and pipes like you wouldn’t believe.”

He saw the recognition on Eric’s face, “That was her wasn’t it? Yeah. Tell you what, I have to take care of some business, but you should go down to this bar.”

Michael took his phone out and tapped at the screen until a walking map came into focus. “See this pin? Yeah, this is us and you need to go over here, down by the river. I know she was there last night.”

“Wow. Thanks, man.”

“It’s nothing. Give me your number and I’ll text you later. You can buy me a drink for all of my help, huh?” A quick chuckle-smile punctuated the sentence.

“Of course.”

They exchanged numbers and messaging handles. Eric’s phone lit up with a text containing the pin drop.

#

Eric set out toward the pin, passing clusters of shops and cafes. It was the lull between daytime Berlin going to sleep and nighttime Berlin waking up. The bars were open, but music and conversation wasn’t flowing out of them onto the street. It was quiet and empty.

Twenty minutes later he was walking into the bar. Eric passed through an archway at the bottom of the stairs and the room opened up. The ceilings were high but the room felt stifling. He could see Mia’s apparition on the stage–swaying, eyes closed, whispering the words to some old standard and holding the mic like a lover’s limb.

He went to the bar and ordered a beer. When the bartender came back with it, Eric asked, “Did an American girl sing here the other night? Black hair, bangs? Voice like an angel in the midst of a suicidal fugue state?”

“Oh, shit. Yeah, man.”

Eric couldn’t tell if it was apprehension or excitement that was washing over him. “Do you have any contact info?”

“Why, are you stalking her?”

“Well, obviously.” Eric waited a beat, hoping for a laugh. “No, no. I’m a good friend of hers from New York.”

“Leave your number here and I’ll give it to the guy who does our bookings.”

“Sure.”

The beer was good. Eric made it disappear with intention and quickness. And another. And another. Midnight rolled around and the bar was empty. One o’clock hit and people began to trickle in the door. A band took stage. Talk was easy, someone asked him where he was from, he answered. He talked about his painting. Showed some phone pictures.

“Where are you from?” Eric asked a short, wild eyed man with dark eyes.

“Central America. Honduras.”

“Wow, tough country.”

They talked. Some Irish people joined them and they listened to a rockabilly band with an American singer. Someone brought out a bag of pills. It’s Berlin, why not? It had been years since he’d done this.

It was five, or maybe six. Eric was dangling from a safety harness. The Honduran’s head was peeking over the ledge from the top of the building. Eric’s mind was lost in the clack-clack-clacking. Mia’s ghost swayed and crooned when he closed his eyes. Another can was drained. It dropped to the street below and made a hollow crash.

“Don’t drop those!” the Honduran whisper-shouted down at him.

“Sorry.”

More clacking. More hissing. Swinging from left to right. Tugging on the rope for a lift or to let out a bit more slack. Top to bottom. No scuffing. Okay, time to go.

The ceiling was maybe an arm’s length above Eric when he opened his eyes. Snores filled his ears and dread filled the rest of him. His body twitched, shooting little sparks through his joints. Everything was heavy and hopeless. The bed he was in was a bunk, that’s why the ceiling was so close. Things were coming back.

Eric scaled the ladder to the floor below, collecting his clothes and his phone from a pile. His hands were stained with paint. The mirror showed a man covered in a sheen of sweat, with sunken eyes and dark, greasy hair. Those shocks kept coming. His stomach was empty but the last thing it wanted was food.

He opened the front door and walked down the stairs. When he got outside the building, he looked down the street. Parts of the night came back to him as he saw what he had done on the side of the apartment block. People were walking by, snapping shots of it with their phones.

It was Mia–but it was different, it looked classical. She was falling backward, holding her hand to her forehead. All of the tattoos matched. The hair was different, the eyes weren’t quite right. It was done in the midst of a drug bender, so flaws like that had to be forgiven. Eric tried to remember what he was thinking. His brain was full of dead ends, and every time he tried, he’d feel the tiny shocks of the molly hangover just a bit more intensely.

Eric’s phone vibrated in his pocket. He pulled it out to see a message from Michael.

“Holy shit, mate. You must have it bad for that girl. The little painting you did got a bit of attention.”

Eric texted back. “I barely remember it. Big night.”

“Long story short, she’s been staying in a loft apartment in Friedrichshain. I know someone who lives there and they texted me when they saw the mural.”

Eric waited.

The follow-up came through. “Anyway, here’s a pin drop. Good luck, mate. You owe me a few more beers now.”

“You ain’t shittin’.”

#

The walk wasn’t too long. The sun had decided to show itself, its warmth pushing chemical sweat out of Eric’s skin. His chills had no regard for the ambient temperature, however. Eric willed himself to walk past his flat. To keep going and cross the river. There was no time to sleep this off, Mia could be in trouble.

She had to know about the massive display of public idiocy that he’d participated in–and it was just the sort of thing that she had loved about him. At least, it’s what he remembered that she loved about him. If she was in trouble, maybe it was of some comfort.

Six-story Berlin apartment blocks loomed on his journey. Somehow they all managed to look alike, even while standing out ever so slightly from one another.

The alcove to the building was covered in shitty tags, peeling stickers, and wheat paste posters. Eric rang the buzzer.

The intercom scratched to life, “Yes.”

“Hi. I’m looking for Mia. A friend told me she was at this address.”

A magnetic click sounded and Eric pushed the door open. Six flights of stairs. The hallway wasn’t as sparse as some of the other buildings he’d found himself in, the railings were wooden and sported flourished turnouts. He counted them, ascending at a reasonable clip, sweat pouring out double-time by the time he reached the top floor.

One door stood at the top of the stairs. Eric grabbed the oversized knocker, pulled it back and let it fall. The sound was thunderous. He was just on the verge of knocking again when the door opened. A tall woman with a number two crop and an impossibly white complexion stood in the doorway.

Flatly, she asked, “You are here for someone?”

“Er, yeah. I heard that Mia is staying here. She’s my . . . we know each other from New York.”

“Come in.”

The room was enormous and shockingly empty. With the exception of a nicely stocked bar at the far end, it was unfurnished. Footsteps echoed across the expansiveness, preceding a corpulent man in his fifties. Rarely had Eric experienced such an immediate reaction to someone. His guts turned in on themselves and his throat constricted.

“Mr. Balder. You came to see Mia, correct?” The man’s voice was wide and deep. It made the sort of sound you could feel in your chest. He had a heavy glass of brown liquor in his hand.

“Yeah. I heard she was here. Is she around?”

“She is.” The pause hung in the air. The man curled his lip for a moment, then continued, “But I want to talk to you about the mural you painted.”

“Fine, but I’d like to see Mia.”

“You can. She’s not a prisoner.”

“Why would you say that?”

“Allow me to start over, I fear I’ve gotten off on the wrong foot. My name is Cassius. I met Ms. Capaldo shortly after she arrived in Berlin. It’s an inexpensive city, but she had run out of means. Not wanting to return to New York, she borrowed some money from me. I have been quite generous, even to the point of providing lodging.”

Eric gritted his teeth.

“But my generosity has come to an end and I need to be reimbursed. Although her voice is lovely, it’s not going to bring in enough to pay me back.”

“How much does she owe you?”

“That’s immaterial, I don’t want money. I want you to paint for me.”

The twisting in Eric’s gut became unbearable. He should have been angry, but he wasn’t. He was terrified. Inadvertently, he took a step backward and bumped into the closed door.

“What do you want me to paint?”

“Something dark. Modern, yet classical, like you did with Mia on the side of that apartment. Can you do that, Mr. Balder?”

“I need paint.”

“I’ll have Alexandra get you whatever you need. You’re to do these three walls.”

“All of them?”

“Floor to ceiling, Mr. Balder. You have three days to complete them. When you are done, you are to take Mia out of Berlin. Go directly from this building to the airport and do not come back. Do you understand me?”

“I want to see Mia.”

“Do you understand me?”

“Yes.” Eric marveled at himself, at his acquiescence. This was what it felt like to be broken.

“She’s sleeping. Alexandra, show him Mia’s room.”

They walked down an impossibly long hallway. There was a window at the far end that didn’t seem to get closer, even though they had been walking for several minutes. It felt like they had gone full city blocks, but the hallway continued straight and narrow. They had passed thirty or forty doorways, all of them unmarked. That window, still as far away as it was when they started. Alexandra came to a sudden stop.

“This one. You may look inside but you aren’t to disturb her.”

She opened it just a hair. Eric greedily forced himself in front of her and pulled the door open enough to see inside.

A single bed sat in the middle of an empty room. Concrete floors and flat, white walls. White linen shrouded Mia’s body. She was laying on her back, her hair contrasted the whiteness of the sheets. Eric could see the slow rise and fall of her chest. He remembered what her breath and her heartbeat felt like. The nights that they would lay on top of one another, talking about nothing at all. Laughing. Sleeping. Bodies tangled like a bolus of snakes.

He didn’t know if it was fear or self control that prevented him from running into the room and throwing her over his shoulder.

“Okay. Let’s go. I need you to get me some paint.”

Eric worked day and night. Cans clanked and clacked and fell into piles. Swaths of color filled the room. Not once during the process did Eric see Cassius. Only Alexandra; she would appear when he needed something, somehow showing up just in time. More paint. Food. Coffee in the morning and beer in the evening. Frantic in the morning and meditative in the night. He poured everything onto the wall. Part of himself escaped through the cans and into the images. Hiding behind the fires of hell and the screams of the damned. The towers of heaven and the pits of the abyss.

On the third day he walked over to the cot that he’d been sleeping on and fell into it. His sleep was deep and dark and dreamless. He woke up to three pairs of eyes.

“Mia.” The words barely made it from his throat before tears leaked out.

“Eric. I. . .” A quick glance at Cassius before composing herself. Was that fear? “Thank you so much.” She threw herself onto Eric’s chest and cried silent tears into his neck.

Cassius’s voice sent Eric’s stomach to flipping again.

“Well done, Mr. Balder. You and Mia may leave. Remember what I said, go straight to the airport.”

Still groggy, Eric squeezed Mia’s body close to his chest. He was sure she could hear his heart tapping out its frantic tattoo on his ribcage. The only thing he wanted was to be gone. Now.

“No problem.” Eric got up and pulled Mia to her feet. “Let’s go.”

#

They walked back toward the flat. Eric wanted to hop a cab to Tegel right then, fuck the rest of his things–but his passport was there. He tried to get Mia to talk about what had happened, how ended up in that apartment, how she ended up in debt, but she refused. Her eyes would dart back and forth when he mentioned Cassius’s name, as if he could hear what she said. Eric had her back though, that’s all that mattered. They could work it out in New York.

Luggage, passport, everything was in place. Eric couldn’t remember when he’d felt such relief. They got down to the street and Eric thought about his big stupid gesture. Mia couldn’t have seen it, she may not have even heard of it.

“I painted you.”

“What?”

“The first night I was in town I got blind drunk and out of my head on pills and in a fit of despair I painted your beautiful face on the side of a building. Must have been three stories high.”

“And that’s how you found me?”

“People were talking about it.”

Mia was silent. Still worried.

“Come on, you have to see it.” Eric remembered the way, it wasn’t far.

They came to the block where he had painted her. The sidewalk was full of people crowding to see. It was surreal, nobody had ever jostled to get a good look at Eric’s art before. His chest swelled with pride as they pushed through the crowd.
When they caught site of it, Mia’s eyes grew enormous and brimmed with tears. She threw herself around Eric’s neck.

“I love you.”

“I love you, too. Why are you crying?”

“Because we didn’t leave.”

Mia’s silent tears turned into sobs as the crowd continued to jostle them. They were sucked into its gravity and pulled one way, then the next. Hundreds of hands brushed against them. The brushes became grabs, Eric could feel strong fingers digging into his arms, his back, his neck. Panic began to set in. Mia was being pulled away from him, his grip was loosening. Her big eyes streaming tears, her mouth wet. The crowd pressed on, hands obscured her face. No matter how hard he pushed or fought or pleaded, the wall of people was unforgiving.

Before long, Mia had disappeared entirely.

The crowd increased in its fury. Music blared. Eric’s clothes began to tear as scores of hands pawed and pulled at him. When the clothes were gone, the hands continued. His joints cracked under the pressure. As his body was torn apart, he lifted his head toward the wall and looked into Mia’s eyes one last time.

Contributor’s Notes: Visit Scotty Weeks at scottyweeks.com. You can find his work on Amazon, including Main de Gloire, Volumes 1, 2 and 3 of his Purgatory, NY series. Volume 4, the final volume, is forthcoming, as well as an omnibus, in February.

I created the stars, but regretted it instantly. Father told me not to create matter, so as not to upset the universal balance of nothingness. Father said, To create anything is not only superfluous but painfully misleading and will only lead to needless suffering.

I did not go to Father, but to Mother, Mother of Eternal Night. She said she forgave me for creating the stars and if I created nothing more, then no great harm would come to the universe. But I got older, and whoever created Boredom was the true culprit of disharmony for I couldn’t help myself when I gave into my impulses and created planets and moons.

It was then that Father sought me out to destroy me, for he knew where all this was going and he was right too; I was creating in order to amuse myself, not out of any virtuous principles whatsoever.

I did not want to die again like I had so many times before. Whenever Father got the notion in his head that I was being a disobedient son, he would kill me and I would have to go through the obnoxious process of being reborn, a process I can’t describe here because there is no language to describe it. I hid on the third planet I created and there was nothing but rock and thick vapors. Father is so confused by material manifestations; I knew he wouldn’t find me on this planet. In hiding, I began to create all kinds of things and quite by accident created Life, that is, I created Time, the very thing Father most feared I would bring into existence.

Father was really too old to be Nothingness, but he somehow held on to his position. In fact, his powers have somehow expanded even greater than in his youth, for now he is the all-encompassing Abyss. He is now everything that is truly important. So much so, that he doesn’t seek me out any longer, he is far past worrying about my silly habit of creating.

And now I have created all this life, and I am remorseful because the poor living entities were somehow—from my sloppy alchemy—imbued with Purpose and Hope; they suffer in such a way that I will never be able to comprehend. But if I could find a way to communicate with them, if I could just find a way to understand their language, I would like to tell them to be happy because I know for a fact that their energy force will not last very long, therefore their suffering is short lived, for soon Father will wipe out all my creations and it will be as if they had never existed.

 

Contributor’s Notes: Louis Bourgeois is the Executive Director of VOX PRESS, a 501(c)3 arts organization located in Oxford, Mississippi.

Called me Gorgon. Called me bitch. I did not come for violence, for war, to go to war. I came to tell God’s truth, the truth of souls. I can do that. It makes people uncomfortable, the way I look at them and linger there, speak their truths. People want lies, get well soon greeting cards. The rulers, it was clear, had hardened their hearts long ago. But the people. I was not prepared for the reception I got. They wanted me to stop, stifle my words, turn the other way. Their conscience pricked, but no one could stop me. No one but my creators–The Father, God, and the Mother, the Holy Spirit (in green). I said to my would-be thwarters, You are wrong to rule a woman, and you are wrong to attempt to rule this one. And then I spit. They left the island and spit back. They would send men. That I could see.

I said, Repent, with authority. I said Repent, and it resonated. I said Repent, and men fell dead. The soldiers who I had seen coming arrived. I know what you’re thinking. The answer is faith. In no time, our women were subdued, underground, weak slaves, or dead. Some lost their honor and their word and acquiesced. But I would not, and for that: Bitch. I was bitter in their mouths.

I spoke stronger truths. Reprobates’ hearts turned to stone. As my God foresaw. Still, I would not be hard hearted. My Achilles heel, my enemies hoped. Their damnation, I knew. I told those who came, Lies will cost you your souls. I told them, stop hating God. God is not the enemy. If you want to blame someone, I said, blame Satan. But they would not. Lucifer, Son of the morning was a kind angel who gave them power and authority and who had gotten the shaft from God because he wanted to be independent. God made them suffer, they thought, they said, they felt. Abandoned. I told them, No, he was an angel who needed to know everything. He was an angel who wanted to be the boss. But before I could finish, they had turned away. In the end, Satan was more marketable than I.

As each man came angrier than the last, the truths were painful rips and tears in the men’s fabric. I hated it. They couldn’t look into my eyes. To do so is to face the Word, whispered or screamed. The Word is the law, the testimony. Ironic, a laugh, they did not want to know what was honest and yet they had come to a seer of souls. What did they expect? But still more fighters were dispatched. Strong women died. Warriors spun their swords at me, but did not reach my heart. They could not kill me. It was beautiful to see God’s power and the clarity. Only a righteous man could kill me, only Perseus. As it was foretold, so it would be.

Snakes in my hair, not evil things that cause the world to fall, but whisperers of futures that would be required of those who chose to lie to themselves in the face of me. Snakes in my hair spoke of my healing power, the power of the truth, how it can lead people to heal their relationships with their creators. After me, the snake was demonized by the patriarchy, and now people think it is Satan! No, just a woman. Not evil Gorgon Bitch out to destroy manhood. Ha! Those arrogant bastards could turn things around. I give them that. Me destroying them! I could spit!

Play the game. Everyone said, Play. What they would have gotten from me: an eye for an eye. Play that game! But I died instead and the future changed. I died, as God foresaw, and here I sit in heaven, waiting for the end of the world.

You earth, you hell, you cruel culture. Perseus. I am glad you killed me. You found the key to my death, my release, and did not look at my outward appearance when you sliced through skin, bone, sinew. Instead, you looked in your shield and saw me reflected, my pain, my truth. You reflected on me. And that’s what it took to end my pain and take my burden. Thank you. I would marry you for less.

As for Poseidon? He raped me. People are used to the rapes. It is not news. But it does destroy a woman. It does bring us to our knees. Out from my neck sprang gold and divine Pegasus. Not all bad, rape. I spit. I am pro choice now.

Memory haunts me. I screamed, alone with treacherous fools. They surrounded me and I swung around and around and around with words, only words. Don’t tell, but I still work, somewhere safe. Truths are rolling on the waves, circling with the moon, touching souls and turning them to stone or freeing them from this yoke. Thousands of years I have lived alone with my father, God. I am safe and warm and alive where being me is a good thing. I wait for the end of suffering. I wait for the end of lies. I wait for the end of evil. One day, I tell you, I wait no more. Trust me.

 

Contributor Notes:  Carroll holds an MFA in fiction from the University of Pittsburgh, has numerous publications in The Sun, Painted Bride Quarterly, and Northern Liberties Review (northernlibertiesreview.com) and others.  “The Secret” is available on Amazon in the Revolt! issue of the Pacific Review.  Please visit her blog at http://casuscoblog.wordpress.com/

Every night, from a fair distance, you can see lights flickering as if surges of power are coursing through the slaughterhouse on the edge of town.

You might guess that some people claim to have heard screams, but the sheriff has never been able to verify this. He has been there several times, only to find an empty building with the lights on.

He finds this comforting.

 

If someone in the town believes angels are released from the bodies of cows as they die and many of them still remain at the slaughterhouse, well, this is not the sheriff’s fault. But who else would listen?

 

Who really owns the slaughterhouse? Some say it’s the mayor. Some say it’s a private citizen who has gotten very eccentric in his old age. They call him Hacker John, sometimes John the Hammer. The sheriff did find this man, but when he asked him why the lights were on, the man replied that he went there when he couldn’t sleep, which was far too often. At the large empty building with the lights on, he found he could sleep. And dream. He does not tell the sheriff his dreams.

Like many eccentrics, Hacker John is wealthy. He can afford to dream. The sheriff, like many of the townsfolk, does not want to believe what Hacker John tells him because this is not an acceptable explanation to the troublesome townsfolk. They want action.

They want conclusions. Or at least a juicy new detail to the unacceptable stories in their imaginations.

Harold’s former owner, a man known by most only as Skeeter, for example, claimed, before Harold’s fourth leg had to be removed because of the infection from rusty barbed wire, that Hacker John did not belong among the townspeople, that he came from somewhere else and has made his fortune capitalizing on their weaknesses (if eating meat is a weakness). Others agreed that this was true, but asked, “Aren’t all fortunes made in this way?”

 

There is, of course, on the other side of town, an eccentric old woman who is very poor and lives in a very old house and some of the people believe she is the lover of the man who owns the slaughterhouse. Some believe there is only cruelty between them.

A local historian believes these two people represent between them the history of this town, and an anthropologist from the college in Omaha has begun to catalog the stories about them to see how they have changed over the years and if they correspond with stories told in other towns. Neither of these people is likely to trace these stories back to the cave, where this really began. Perhaps Thomas should be wondering about these things instead of his neighbors. Perhaps an angel needs more than a body. Perhaps there are more parts to a body than you can see. You might think an angel would be the first one to know this. You might be wrong.

And you might be interested in the other edge of town, the edge that anyone who is bored or lonely can find, even when they’ve never been to the edge of town. It’s an edge that sharpens when religion is discussed, an edge that excites fear and quickens the nerves, which makes the nerves create things that may not be there. It’s an edge that might once have been necessary for survival and that has now mostly been forgotten but still lingers in misunderstood impulses. And in dreams, where nearly everything we have lost still lingers.

Some of the people of the town are trying to learn to live on that edge, and they want the sheriff to help them. The sheriff is trying to understand this, but understanding this is not his job.

And the sheriff is expected to do his job.

 

Near the town hall, in an old Victorian house, surrounded now by commercial buildings, three eccentric sisters live quietly in disagreement with the town’s progress.

Rumor has it that these three sisters sleep together in a large oak bed. Yes, the people believe they are lovers and that sometimes they abduct a stranger from the streets late at night and involve him in rituals they train him to forget.

It is not a rumor, however, that these three sisters feed and care for at least a dozen cats. It is a rumor that they also feed and care for more than a dozen snakes, six green canaries, a rare Australian toad, and several dozen very nervous white mice. They are, of course, the same three sisters you can find in many other small towns, and their three brothers are equally well known. This is something Thomas should know as well as he knows the coordination of his fingers, the tingling in his hair follicles when his hand wraps around the hand of a friend.

The stories twist a little from town to town, state to state, but the similarities remain. There is, for example, a waitress at the truck stop a few miles down the highway named Trudy, who knows just about everything there is to known about the three sisters and their three lost brothers. Trudy is not her real name. She came to the diner about three years ago after running away from her mother, an alcoholic, with a bad childhood of her own, who used to beat Trudy. Trudy’s father was a trucker who left before she was old enough to know him.

Or a cowboy. Or a mechanic. Or a wealthy married corporate executive buying real estate for oil wells. Trudy jokes about him.

You can tell your troubles to Trudy and Trudy has always had it worse to make you feel better. Trudy’s boyfriend this week is Dusty Wayne, a name he probably made up, a gypsy trucker who believes he wants to put down roots. Dusty has a daughter in another town, by another Trudy, who is also a waitress, a waitress planning to buy a mobile home as soon as she can save up enough of her tips. That Trudy hopes to marry a fry cook named Sam, which might actually be his real name though nobody seems to remember his last name, not even Trudy.

Visitation privileges are definitely limited, but once Dusty’s daughter came with him on a long haul. She slept in the back and played with her plastic horses, and talked about her mother’s boyfriends in North Dakota, and about the ribbons she is going to win at the county fair for barrel racing, and about the cowboy she is going to marry some day when she gets old enough to have babies. Perhaps Thomas might learn something from the probability that she will be right, except for the injury that ends her husband’s rodeo career and turns him to trucking. Her daughter’s first boyfriend will be named Dusty, too.

She will laugh about the “coincidence,” a word she speaks with a southern drawl and her lips drawn up at the sides of her mouth. Her daughter will call them Dusty He and Dusty She. A few years later the same boyfriend will become a dancer in New York. She will tell this story while waitressing at a diner down the road from the Tri-State Raceway, flipping a limp wrist at the customer when she lisps “dancer.”

Right now the diner’s specialty is a buffalo burger, which was actually prepared for this moment by the buffalo getting slaughtered at the edge of town. But it won’t be long before it will be a garden burger, and most of the farmers will commute to the larger town thirty miles away or be employed by agribusiness.

When it snows here, the people hunker down in their blankets and pretend that centuries have not passed. The old Victorian house with the three elderly sisters will help them believe this, even if three new sisters are growing older there and the three older sisters have passed on. Thomas finds such concepts of time easy to understand, but he seldom remembers details.

Thomas can’t understand why the sisters will be remembered smiling with ethereal grace when they were so rarely seen that way in life. It might make you think the townspeople actually liked them when they treated them mostly with contempt and occasionally pity.

Outside, in the snowy orchards, the shadows of denuded trees make a neat and repetitive system of angles on the snow. Inside the temporary houses, which we call bodies, shadows dance on the walls as neglected fireplaces flicker back to life. It always takes several awkward moments to realize that the returning shadows are your own. Once more they cast themselves on the primitive wall of a kind of memory that doesn’t announce itself. It slips out of our ancient past and climbs again to the ceiling, where the sparkling, spackled, cloudless and clearly imagined night quietly punctuates the ageless dance.

 

In the canyons of Thomas asleep there lives a hermit named Clyde. Clyde has lived in the canyon forever, and he has never stopped talking. Clyde talks only to himself because no one can understand what he is saying. Clyde does not have a history. No matter who you ask in town, no one will know about Clyde, except to say they saw him, yesterday.

Everyone knows where he lives and how he looks and whom he talks to because he talks to himself. Clyde pulls a red Radio Flyer wagon to collect wood and bottles and any usable discards he can find.

Some of the children try to speak to Clyde so they can make up their own stories about what it is that he has said. Since he isn’t really speaking to them, only speaking in their presence, it could be anything. Some of them decide to collect things like he does and try to sell them. Then they feel guilty that they are taking away Clyde’s business. So they go to Clyde’s shack to give him some of the pennies they make collecting things. When

Clyde answers the door, they hold out their hands with the pennies in them. As Clyde gestures them away, refusing the offer, they see over Clyde’s shoulder a black and white TV tuned to The Wheel of Fortune.

This happens again and again with different children. Stories circulate about it, but it happens over and over because no one believes them, and the children have to prove to themselves that this is really what Clyde would do. Later these children will claim that they saw someone dressed in blue and heard a woman’s voice farther back in the room.

Or that a mean dog attacked them and would have torn them apart if it weren’t for the Swiss knife they were carrying. Or that Clyde’s room was beautiful and filled with glittering lights from one of those balls they mount on the ceiling at dance places. Or that

Clyde was too drunk to answer the door, and they went in anyway, and Clyde tried to have sex with them and put their hands on him and he unbuttoned things and reached for zippers. Or threw up on them. Or that Clyde took the pennies and thanked them kindly.

No one believes that, either.

 

One day a passing scholar from Omaha, who has eaten at the local diner, decides to take a walk around town before moving on. As the woman finishes a bottle of pop, Clyde walks by with his wagon full of bottles, and the scholar hands Clyde the empty bottle.

Just then Trudy is getting off work at the diner, and she observes the two people apparently carrying on a conversation. Not like the children, who just ask him a question to hear the funny noises he makes and then lie to everybody about what he said. She walks over and asks the scholar what she thinks she is doing. The scholar informs her that they are discussing “rabbit breeding,” and when Trudy looks puzzled, she adds, “in Hungarian.”

The scholar leaves town the same day and two days later, having told no one yet about what she has discovered, Trudy moves to Alaska with a salmon fisherman. Thomas misses Trudy’s stories at the diner, but wonders how many of them she told and how many of them he dreamed.

 

The creek that runs through the town comes down from the hills of rusted earth to the east and often runs red. The local children use a railroad trestle as a diving platform, but one of the children once dove out too far and was killed. No one knows if the creek is called Blood Creek because of the accident or because of the color of the water.

The dead boy had been the son of a minister, and the trestle was “off limits.” Now it is not possible to achieve respect in the high school here without jumping naked from that trestle into Blood Creek.

 

A legend the people here believe is the story of Wanutka, the giant white buffalo. It is said that when the town was just a village, one of the young men had been thrown from his horse crossing a swift-flowing stream, injuring his legs on the stones. The stream carried him along over rocks and boulders, bruising him and breaking his body, until coming around a cut-bank, he saw a ghostly buffalo drinking from the edge of the stream, his massive shaggy head leaning out over the streambed. The young man grabbed the buffalo’s horns and the buffalo pulled him to shore and quickly disappeared. The young man not only survived, but he regained the use of his legs.

Thomas remembers this story both in sleep and in waking. He does not know if he has remembered it from his past, dreamed it from almost nothing, or heard it. He believes in some indirect way that the white buffalo is his father. He does not think of the buffalo as a ghost or an apparition. Neither does he tell anyone how he feels about the white buffalo.

 

A legend the people here do not believe is the story of Wilhelmina Appleseed, who is said to have bragged so loudly about the virtues of her womanhood while perched atop a horse in Blood Creek that lightning struck the horse. She fell, mouth open, into the creek and swallowed the whole stream, giving birth as a result to the Twin Buttes south of town. Some of the people say there is a third butte and that these three are the birthing mounds of the three sisters living in the Victorian house at the edge of town. They do this in order to attach a truth to a lie, which can sometimes make the lie seem true. Because there seems to be no real consequence to the story, it is not believed. This does not diminish the enthusiasm with which the story is told. Perhaps it is a story looking for a home, a story still available for someone to attach to his or her own history and thereby bring to light its consequence. Thomas believes it is a story containing a white buffalo and the buffalo has fallen out of the story. He often tries to remember his father telling the story. In this he has not succeeded.

 

A legend most of the people here would like to believe, but don’t, is the story of the founder of this town, known as McKinley Goldenrod because no one knows his real name and the McKinley family and the Goldenrod family both lay claim to this man. He is said to have been digging for gold in the red hills when his pickaxe struck a metal object, which turned out to be a chest. The chest contained a map, which at first made no sense to him but later led him to a buried stash of gold doubloons deep in the jungles of Brazil. This was supposed to have been the money used to bribe the railroad to pass through the town. The few remaining historical documents of the town tell another story.

The town’s name is unrelated to the story. The legend persists.

A great number of brawls and fistfights have occurred over the uncertainty about which of McKinley’s legs was wooden though everyone seems certain that one of them was. During the centennial, a local entrepreneur sold Scotch in wooden flasks shaped to “the exact length and girth” of McKinley Goldenrod’s wooden leg. Due to the incidence of alcoholism in town, an unopened decanter is a rare commodity indeed. Nearly everyone in town claims to be related to McKinley Goldenrod. Several varieties of fruit in the local orchards are named after him.

Few people here believe there ever was any real quantity of gold in the red hills, despite the inevitable tiny nugget passed down in several families, but from time to time someone from the geology department of the university manages to start rumors about various other valuable minerals, and the shovels and the pick axes sell out at the surplus store. Nothing much comes of it.

 

A rare breed of chestnut-red horse with almost no tail is said to have originated here, over near the Twin Buttes, but the breed is no longer highly valued. No living specimens remain, but there is a stuffed (some say fake) example losing its hair in front of the barbershop. It still gets to move inside when it rains.

One of the local farmers invented a device for harvesting corn, powered by a single horse, but by the time the man learned it was necessary to apply for a patent, someone else had invented it. This happened the year before Henry Ford’s automobile first appeared in town. Nearly everyone believes this story, but no one claims to be related to the man. No one can even remember his name with any certainty, and several possibilities have been proved false with minimal research.

Some of the Italians who moved here before the war tried to graft a unique strain of blue wine grape to the more common varieties on the sunny warm slopes of the red hills. The wine these hybrids produced became very respected by the local elite and was joked about by the less discerning, who certainly didn’t turn it down anyway, but no one outside of the immediate area would buy blue wine. Now it is made only in local basements and sheds while pheasants and foxes and a pack of feral dogs have their way with the abandoned landscape where the grapes occasionally ferment upon the vine in the old vineyards.

 

For weeks now, Thomas has been exploring the town. Ever since his hands have started to reach for things as if they were nearly beyond his control, he has been wandering. He picks up a rock and puts it back down. He picks it up again and squeezes it. He marvels at the way it makes his hand conform to its shape. He places it upon a table and listens to the conversation. Neither the rock nor the table gives in to the other, but the respect is obvious.

Sometimes Thomas pushes the edges. When the rock and the table are finished, he picks up the rock again and caresses it. He marvels at the way the rock demands his attention so roughly without doing any real damage. It’s a kind of caress that he has never before received, or more accurately, remembered.

Thomas drops the rock and feels a tremendous satisfaction at the soft enveloping thud the grass offers with so many fingers. The rock is all palm and knuckle. It has no fingers, or it only has one and wears it on the outside of its palm like a single round knucklefinger.

Thomas throws the rock, and it grabs a leaf, a berry, a bit of dirt. It holds its collection tightly but shares if you coax it. It knows how to wait better than Thomas does. It does not complain if you ask it to hold onto your notebook. It likes the bottom of water and the top of air, which all angels know is the reverse of human experience. Falling is a worthier endeavor than climbing, and a rock knows this.

Do not tell a chair what a rock knows.

 

Thomas picks up the comb from the sidewalk. He pulls his thumb across the tines and listens to the pitch changing. He does this several times. He holds it out and offers the sound to a passing child, who recoils in fear.

Thomas combs the grass, very slow work indeed if you’re going to do it without breaking the grass. He combs the air, and it creates a circular motion that he enjoys nearly as much as the comb. He combs the hair of some other child’s doll, left sitting on the green park bench, and the child before him begins crying. He runs the comb alongside his nose, as if he were trying to get something inside his nose to fall into place. The child quits crying.

Thomas combs the sun. He reaches out and combs the sun. The sun doesn’t notice. He combs the clouds. He combs the water. He combs the park bench, which ignores him. He combs the idea of the park bench, which gets silky and smooth and invites him to hold on to it.

 

It’s like this.

Whispered, of course.

Someone said, “Come in,” but it was your room, and you had lived there for years.

A few minutes after you met yourself, you understood why your life was not really your own.

 

The ghost of the mayor’s boyhood horse snickers in the penthouse rooftop garden, feasting on snow peas and spinach, pawing the rich and shallow topsoil for further rewards. Only the mayor hears him. And then sees him through the telescope, escaping.

No longer held back by earthly fences, the white horse in the dream feasts and races his moon-shadow on the road in front of the mayor’s old house. Soon the mayor’s angry wife removes the imported “Gypsy” tomatoes from the penthouse kitchen windowsill, believing they have caused her husband’s “derangement.”

Her flowers begin disappearing.

Thomas sighs in his sleep.

 

The white horse is whispering at the mayor’s window, hovering above the town as if some ancient message of poetry were being delivered to a god. The message is indeed ancient, and it’s always received as poetic, but it’s hardly unusual. It enters the mayor’s blood while he sleeps. It carries the conversations in his body from one part of the body to another. It speaks, and it listens, and it keeps moving. An insistent bold mouse of need with an entire hungry family waiting. Cautious, but returning and returning again. Inevitable.

Oh, what could be eating our flowers, wonders the mayor’s wife.

Thomas tells the bed-sheets what is happening to him. He whispers of his need to his gently held pillow. He murmurs in another language. The mayor tries to distract his distraught wife by sponsoring a concert for the townspeople, but no one comes. They can’t believe the address of the concert hall is the right one. “Music indoors?” they all ask and gather in the park, dancing till late into the night to the thunderous rustling of the leaves.

Thomas hears the leaves and awakens.

 

Contributor’s Notes: Rich Ives has received grants and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, Artist Trust, Seattle Arts Commission and the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines for his work in poetry, fiction, editing, publishing, translation and photography. His writing has appeared in Verse, North American Review, Massachusetts Review, Northwest Review, Quarterly West, Iowa Review, Poetry Northwest, Virginia Quarterly Review, Fiction Daily and many more. He is the 2009 winner of the Francis Locke Memorial Poetry Award from Bitter Oleander. In 2011 he received a nomination for The Best of the Web and two nominations for both the Pushcart Prize and The Best of the Net. He is the 2012 winner of the Creative Nonfiction Prize from Thin Air magazine. The Spring 2011 Bitter Oleander contains a feature including an interview and 18 of his hybrid works. His book of days, Tunneling to the Moon, is appearing in serial form with a new piece each day at http://silencedpress.com/.

 

Ciara stumbled forward, her lungs small with exertion, while her mind kept circling back down the mount. The red of Cymru’s earth stained her hands. Red like the dragon Myrddin said would defeat the Saxons. Red like blood.

Cresting the rise, Ciara was hit by a full wind. It pushed her toward the sloping cliff on her left and threw her twisting black hair into her face. Below her, the sea was dark with a coming storm, foaming over the jagged rocks of low tide.

The rumble of thunder echoed in her hollow chest. She felt like a cavern.

 King Arthur sleeps in a cavern, whispered the voice of her mother. He sleeps and will not wake until the bell is rung. Then Cymru will unite under him, magic will return, and we will be free.

Lightning streaked across the sky. Ciara turned inland.

“Please,” she said, her voice hoarse and swallowed by the wind. “Let there be magic.”

An empty expanse was before her, only fields of tall grass for miles around. No thatched cottage or strong tree rose out of the desolation to shelter her. Ciara looked at the wilderness she had once loved and no longer recognized it.

The Normans had taken everything from her, from her people. Spilling Cymry blood or sending them fleeing, it seemed to make no difference now. Even when they fled, they ran to their deaths. Ciara’s very bones ached with running.

They could take Ciara now, or kill her if they pleased. None of it seemed to matter anymore.

Ciara sensed the rain, a sheet of gray on the horizon, a trembling in the ground. She walked toward it, almost relieved when the stinging drops hit her, burning into her exposed arms like a fever. A weight settled on her scalp. But she lifted her chin higher, higher, until she was staring through squinted eyes at the broken sky.

Magic is stronger in the rain, her mother whispered.

The stories said that portals to the fairy realm used to open through puddles. Her grandfather remembered when the belief was widely accepted—remembered the times when people would not leave the house for fear of slipping between worlds. Even then, sometimes fate would work magic. But it had been many, many years since the last such story.

King Arthur fell. Not dead, just asleep. Magic sleeps with him.

When the magic went out of the world, darkness came over it. There were wars, and Cymru began to crumble.

Ciara’s mother had told her—again and again, in a voice as warm as honey—of the light in a world filled with magic. Her grandfather would listen, shaking his head, and say afterwards, “Those words could make flowers bloom.”

How many times had her mother whispered the stories during the long, hungry nights?

How many times had she made Ciara recite them as they escaped a new attack from the Marcher Lords? A thousand days and nights Ciara had heard it: The red dragon will rise, the rightful king return, and we will be free.

It had not mattered, in the end. Her grandfather kept saying that the legends were just fables that became more golden with every telling. Perhaps he was right. No matter how many stories her mother had told, they had not kept the new, dark world at bay. The stories did not stop the Norman’s pillaging. They did not stop the Normans on the night they took her grandfather.

They did not stop the rain and wind and cold as Ciara and her mother fled.

They did not stop the arrow from piercing through her mother’s neck.

Her mother was dead. And, for the first time in her life, Ciara felt that magic was, too. The puddles gathered around her ankles. She did not lift her skirt, but let it drag in the mud. There was a prayer on her lips, a desire she could hardly speak.

“Please, please, let there be magic.”

Perhaps if she fell into the fairy realm, she would find help. Perhaps if she fell, she could wake the sleeping king. Perhaps when the world was mended, and magic returned, she would find this had been a bad dream. Reality was a bad dream. Her mother would be awake, waiting for her. She would be spinning her stories, and the flowers would bloom again.

Ciara walked. The pounding rain drenched her, washing the red earth off her hands, washing away the traces she carried of her mother’s fresh grave. Her foot caught on a rock, and she collapsed forward with a cry. The mud seeped around her shaking arms, clinging as she pushed herself up on hands and knees. Ciara stared down at the murky puddle beneath her, stared at her limned shadow. Her overwrought mind sought for some story, some tale that would give her the strength to rise again. But all she could see was the empty silhouette of her face.

Light seeped across the water, and she realized the storm was breaking. She sat back on her legs, shuddering with cold and exhaustion. The puddle became blue, with white clouds in it. It was like a reflection of another world.

A bright world she hadn’t seen before. Hope crept into her heart, a hope so painful she wanted to wish it away again.

Slowly she reached out. Her fingers hovered over the surface.

“Please,” she whispered.

She dipped her hand.

A flicker—a tingling—

But then nothing. She was sitting in the mud, with her hand in a puddle, watching the sky rippled around her fingers.

Her mother had been wrong. There was no bell, no king, no magic.

Ciara dug her fingers into the mud until her fingernails hurt. A bubbling hatred rose up her throat, choking her, and she struck out, trying to destroy the reflection. Her palm collided with something hard under the mud. Gulping back a sob, she felt the object. Her hand could just close around it—a shape almost like a goblet. She pulled it out.

It was a bell, only a little smaller than her hand. As she wiped the mud away, silver gleamed in the sunlight. There was a tree—made of twisting, intricate knots—etched in the surface. Her heart went still.

Ciara lifted her head and looked around quickly. No sign of the Norman scouts. No sign of life. It had been foolish of her to leave so recklessly, so blindly. She had no idea where she was now, or where the nearest Normans might be camped. If they were in hearing distance…

She looked down at the bell. The impossibility of it was more than she could let herself believe.

But she had to try.

With a cautious, slow arc of her arm, she swung. A clear note rang out, a sound that cut through the air with pure joy. She found herself smiling.

There was no other change. No rumbling. No rush of magic. No king springing up before her.

Yet the sound brought her comfort. It warmed the cavern in her chest. It seemed to promise that though everything was dead now, soon it would be alive.

 

Contributor’s Notes: Alyssa Hollingsworth is a senior English major with a Creative Writing concentration at Berry College. Her work has appeared in Ramification, Berry College’s art and literary magazine. She also writes extensively for the Berry College website and alumni magazine. You can find her at  http://midenianscholar.wordpress.com.

I moved out to the shore in March. Jostled along a narrow road, trying to decipher a map scrawled in The Stag’s Head the night before, scrounging for table space amid wet rings of beer.

“Sure, the place is empty till June,” my mate had said. “You’ve nothing to feel bad about. You made no promises to her.”

Another clapped me on the back. “It was a bit of fun! Let her go and leave the husband if she wants. And raise two kids alone, and now with another on the way? No way she’ll budge. Sitting pretty she is.”

He sat back, raised his pint to his mouth. “Blackmailing you with talk of a baby. Sure, it’s nonsense!”

“She’d have you changing nappies and mixing formula, world without end,” said my mate. “Listen, man. Mi casa es su casa – put her from your mind and go write that book of yours!”

‘That book of yours’ had been part of our talk since college days in the Department of Classics. It had begun life as a deconstructionist take on Ovid and morphed from there. The latest incarnation was an urban thriller, gritty with months of research on the effect of violent crime on the female body. I had cashed in on a good redundancy package and there was no hurry to find gainful anything. Getting away from Dublin made the world of sense to me. I spotted my turning and dropped into first gear to manoeuver into the lane—narrower still, and loosely woven of potholes. Something glinted on the roadside: a gold leather sandal, held aloft on a corner-tuft of grass. I smiled. It might have been a ruby slipper, or Cinderella’s missing footwear.

“You’ve been hanging out with women too long,” I told myself. I took it as a sign.

I bumbled along the rough track, took a steep blind corner, and braked sharply. Thick branches of gorse blocked my way. Debris from last night, I guessed; the storm was engulfing Dublin as I left. I hefted the sharp branches into the hedgerow, revealing the path winding down to my mate’s house.

Fit for the gods, it was. The aspect was idyllic: perched on the side of a tapering valley that sloped down to a scythe of white shoreline. The inlet was deep and sheltered; its azure waters fading to grey as dusk slipped down the land. A single other house was visible, high up on the opposite side. I counted six fields spanning the gulf between us.

A space-age heating system and one of those fake-flame fires soon chased off the damp. I’d been instructed to help myself. “All the quaffable reds you could want,” my mate boasted, puffing up his chest. “Sure, I feel like a patron of the bloody Arts!” I opened a decade-old Fleurie, put my feet up, and toasted decadent patronage more than once. Later I chose a bedroom; lay there listening to the myriad unrecognisable sounds that emanated from the darkness absolute. Eventually I succumbed to sleep.

In the morning I set out to walk the land. I followed the progress of a herd of cattle as they picked a path down to the lower fields. It was then I noticed the sweep of honey grass pulling inland from the beach. Sturdy trees issued from its midst, towering over the yellow; their lower branches stroked by the grass—seven or eight feet tall. When I got close, I realised it was wetland. The grass was thick and supple, like willow, but with feathery tops that trembled in the slightest breeze, caressing the gnarled limbs of the tremendous coal-black guardians. Something about the ancient growth, the honey feathers, reminded me of a mangrove swamp. I didn’t venture in; told myself I didn’t have the right footwear for a place of neither water nor earth. But it had an air about it—as though nothing that walked out of there would surprise you.

Or so I thought.

It began the morning the black calf was born; my third or fourth day. He was curled up away from the herd, a small lump among vibrant green, his mother standing guard. I caught movement from the yellow. A doe stepped out from the grass: grey-brown in her winter coat, elegant and petite. She moved among the herd, grazing, seeming to enjoy the anonymity they offered. Catching sight of the nestled calf, she approached the bovine Madonna and Child. The doe studied the face of the new mother, then lowered her sinuous neck and licked the calf’s flat black head. The mother fidgeted during the benediction, nudging the grass around as though tucking in blankets. Straightening, the doe checked the sky overhead and walked on. The mother remained bowed over her charge, wide eyes fixed on the doe until the grey-brown merged with gorse and stone.

From then on, I kept watch. She came almost every morning. I scanned the surroundings for other deer, hoping to glimpse the powerful antlers of a stag—but there was only one, only she. Moving casually, the doe remained sharp to every sound and movement. I swear, when the toaster popped my bagel, she looked up to the house, to the kitchen window, to me. Each time she chose a single cow to graze beside, and isolated him to herself, contrasting her slender frame to his beefy bulk. Once, the elected cow tried to rejoin the herd. The doe moved quickly to block his path, her legs slightly splayed. The cow made a low noise, trying another direction—blocked again. Defeated, he—although I suppose technically it was a she—bowed his head and ate slowly, deliberately. The doe lined up alongside and resumed her breakfast of enforced camaraderie.

I allowed myself time to settle in; told myself I needed to get the lay of the land first without feeling the pressure of writing. I saw my neighbour-farmer bringing down some additions to the herd. I strode out casually, like I belonged. As I introduced myself andexplained my presence, he glanced behind me to the car, eyeing its D registration.

“Writing, is it?”

“That’s right, yeah. Thought I’d come out here. Focus the mind, you know?”

“Well.” He urged the passing cattle along, and they trotted for a few steps before lapsing back into a lazy gait. “Don’t be getting distracted by the local girls.”

I laughed warmly; stopped suddenly. Was he warning me off his cows? Or perhaps my mate had told him I’d be coming, explained I was aiming to get away from female

distractions.

“Well,” I began. “I’d better get back. Hit the computer, bang out some words.”

“Right enough,” he moved on, speaking without looking back. “Mind yourself now.”

Inside, I made a cappuccino and watched him guide the animals below. Tiny song-birds darted among the hedgerows, gathering filaments to weave into nests. Raggedy crows scooped across the fields, so low that the grass shuddered beneath their chests. Down at the shore, the pair of swans arrived – the two of them came in at the same time every day. I followed their flight with binoculars, tracing the perimeter of the inlet twice before touchingdown. The tide was coming in: a single long low wave curled in to the crescent, its white rim looking like a neat fingernail, or a moon-sliver, or, or… something else.

I couldn’t write. Not so much as a shopping list, since I arrived. I filled my days with notwriting: breakfasted leisurely; read until the swans flew in; then off to a hotel or a coffee shop where local voices swirled around me. Afternoons I explored the coastline: markets, stone circles, crumbled monasteries, whatever took my fancy. At one point, I thought I could write some travel articles—I had a connection in The Examiner. But I couldn’t even write the email. On my way home I’d stop for a pint in Hegarty’s, nod to the couple of auld fellahs propping up the bar, their talk falling to silence as I entered. I’d leave them to it; sit in the snug and read the paper in peace. Except for Fridays – when a group of mothers came in for their post-school-pick-up gossip and chardonnay fiesta. One to avoid. Fridays, I headed for home, turning at the sign of the golden sandal (which miraculously stayed in place); back to the house and its underground cache of wine.

The cattle stayed below for two weeks, until the night of the storm. I thought the Scandinavian roof would come off the place, there was such howling and screeching. I slept little, and badly. The next morning, the valley brimmed with warmth and sunshine. The fields looked their normal selves, and I wondered if my imaginative powers were such that I could have conjured the tempest. As I breakfasted, a cow broke away from the herd and began to ascend the valley. The others followed. One after another they clambered slowly up and gathered on the slope before my house.

I only turned away for a moment, to take out the warmed buttery-chocolate brioche (a woman’s breakfast, I told myself – time to leave the French fancies behind and return to granola and toast). When I looked back, the cows were all turned in the same direction, gazing up the old cattle path, up past where the gorse ended, where there was only a single old tree, bent crooked by the wind, all grey and smooth.

A woman crowned the hill top.

She had porcelain skin, a halo of glowing platinum curls and a white dress that flowed like liquid over her body as she moved. As she approached the kitchen window, I saw that she was barefoot. She carried a branch, covered with delicate pink blossoms. It was only after she passed—when the cattle had resumed their bovine poses, their stolid fixed expressions—that I realised I had been holding my breath the whole time.

The binoculars were in the living room. I moved quickly. Her hips swung from side to side as she stepped easily down the rough path, the thin dress outlining her curves. I tracked her, step after step, her arms swinging loosely. When she reached the shore she paused, looking out to the horizon for a long moment. Then she glanced overhead, and stepped into the thick honey grass of the wetland.

My mouth dry, I stumbled out and down, almost tripping. I moved without thought; fired by base instinct. I pushed my way through the grass—hard as bamboo—and into the wetland. My feet were drenched in seconds. Surrounded, I listened for rustling, for a direction. A mellifluous voice carried through the grass, cascading over me and into me like a physical warmth.

“I’m so pleased that you could come.” For a second I thought I’d been seen. But it wasn’t directed to me. I crept towards the sound.

After about fifteen feet the hard thick grasses gave way, revealing a glade of lush velvet grass. The platinum lady was standing, surrounded by a circle of seven seated women. Their skin glowed, in tones from palest ivory to glossy mahogany. Everything about them was brighter, deeper, more intense than any woman I had ever seen. I nudged myself closer. They were at their ease, passing a small amphora around the circle.

Her clear blue eyes shining, the platinum lady laid her branch down in the centre of the circle. I could make out other things there: a mound of summer berries, a small earthenware jar, pebbles that glittered like precious gems, and some white material, like dewy gossamer. She seated herself between a figure veiled in dove-grey and a majestic brunette in golden robes, her chestnut hair arranged high in elaborate plaits.

The majestic one spoke. “Danae, perhaps you would like to start?”

A woman with sublime skin in a pale yellow gown began speaking, quietly and carefully. Ash-blonde tresses woven through with pearls cascaded down her back. She sat upright, her legs curled under her.

“At first, I didn’t know what was happening. There was a shimmering, then all around me was saturated with fine gold dust. And then came the heat: like the eruption of a volcano. The air seemed to melt under the surges; I remember it burned to breathe in. I trembled.” One of her hands slid down and cupped the delicate pale arch of her foot. “When I felt him inside me, I thought I would break apart.”

The speaker looked across the circle, to a woman draped in rich orange: skin the colour of deep-roasted coffee beans; hair in spiraling corn rows; long legs crossed casually and stretching into the circle. “It was different to what you described before—I couldn’t feel anything beyond the heat. I simply blazed. When he receded, there was something inside me, a stirring.” Her delicate fingers moved across her foot, touching each perfect toe in turn.

“Little Perseus.” She looked down, gave a tiny shrug. “That’s what I wanted to say. Thanks.”

Zeus. Zeus appeared to Danae as a golden shower. She was Danae. I couldn’t move.

“At least your encounter had some mystery.” A woman in sage-green picked daisies idly as she spoke. I fixated on the outline of her slim shoulders, her elegant collar bones, longing to taste her cinnamon skin. “Dazzled by a bull—who’d believe that?” She looked down at the daisy, twirling the flower between her fingers. “But in that moment, with all of the ocean crashing in around me, and this enormous, glorious creature kneeling at my feet—mine—and bowing his white head low. It felt wondrous.”

The amphora passed to the woman beside her, hooded in mocha silk. When she leaned back to drink, her face remained hidden in darkness. The speaker let the daisy fall and looked up.

“Then I felt stupid. Criminally stupid. I forgave him immediately—I was in love. Forgiving myself took longer.” She looked to the majestic brunette, and there was a peculiar expression on her face—like the memory of being humoured as a child. “I remember I begged you to wipe me clean.”

The majestic brunette turned her palms upwards in her lap of golden silk. “I remember well, Europa. There were times when I wanted to forget the form of the shepherd who crossed the hills to me. But remember we must.”

Europa nodded, accepting the amphora from the hooded figure.

“I remember how you explained it to me.” said Danae softly, “That without remembering, each word, each thought would evaporate without a trace. We would drift, without even comprehension of being.” She looked to the majestic brunette, “You remember for all our sakes.”

The amphora passed to her and she took a long sip. As she swallowed, a golden radiance pulsed through her fair skin.

Danae smiled playfully, “I can imagine Zeus as a shepherd”.

Responses came from around the circle.

“With me, he was an eagle.”

“He took the form of my husband.” The dove-grey veil moved as the rough voice came from underneath.

“He came to me as a satyr,” said a redhead, draped with gold and lapis lazuli.

Danae wrinkled her nose in distaste. Europa raised an eyebrow. “I suppose each to their own, Antiope.”

“Really? Like a bull is so much better!” countered Antiope to Europa.

“A satyr would have been better-looking than my husband, that’s for sure.” said the dovegrey veil. My mind raced through stories… she must be Alkmene, mother of Herakles. Zeus strikes again.

“Zeus was an ant with me.” A small woman with her back to me had spoken. She picked at the grass beside her, extracting moss, arranged twigs and leaves in orderly lines. “I mean, he appeared as an ant. He changed before… you know.” She splayed her fingers, examining them for stains. “I thought no amount of time could ease the hatred.”

“Well, I felt honoured.” Antiope tossed back her red hair in defiance, “I’d become a goddess! Always dreamed big, I had. By the time I understood… well, by then I was transformed. Sorry, but that’s how I felt. I know it was different for many of us.” She looked lovingly towards the ash-blonde Danae.

“A vessel for a day,” Danae murmured. “But it’s that day I relive.”

She raised her head, listening to the air. She smiled. Then I heard it too.

Music.

Voices drifted in from the sea, slipping through the grasses like the tinkling of bells. The chants grew, encompassing us in a single word cascading in exquisite harmonies, withouth beginning or end: Mnemosyne.

I recognised the word, the name. The Mother of the muses. Mnemosyne. Memory herself. An impossibly beautiful female form with violet eyes entered the glade. She leaned over the majestic brunette and kissed her cheek.

“Hello, mother.”

Mnemosyne smiled and closed her eyes, as though breathing in the kiss. “Calliope.”

One by one, the other voices entered the glade, until nine encircled the seated group. Nine muses. They intoned a single note. Mnemosyne raised her cupped hands to her lips and closed her eyes. She whispered into her hands.

Deep in the earth beneath me, something stirred. As if something had woken up. The stirring resonated through water and earth. The land fell silent: no bird-chatter, no moaning of cattle. The wind dropped. The only

sound was the single long crescent wave sweeping the shore.When Mnemosyne opened her eyes, they smouldered gold. She turned to my platinum lady from the hill top.

“Is there anything you’d like to add, Leda?”

“What’s done is done.” Leda shrugged carelessly, her halo of curls bobbing. “Sitting like this, it keeps everything revolving around Zeus. But we are who we are; what we’ve become. And you know what?” Her blue eyes searched from face to face around the circle. “We are limitless. We are iconic.”

Most of the others smiled, some laughed. Leda turned to the nine figures circling and announced formally, “This choir of creation fosters with light what he took with force.”

“Yes,” said Mnemosyne, “I believe it’s time we transformed these histories again”.

“But not crudely,” offered Danae. “Some of the artists were too… obvious about us.”

“Too crass,” agreed the redhead Antiope. “Though I did enjoy Yeats. So mastered by the brute blood of the air…”

I glanced to Leda. A shadow crossed her face.

“I think this time, there would be no need to publish,” said Mnemosyne. She nodded to Danae, who reached into the circle and uncovered the earthenware pot. A sweet scent infused the air—like jasmine mixed with honey; cloying, dizzying. “In fact,” she continued, “I’m inclined to think there’s no need to share at all. We could keep it all to ourselves.”

And then Leda looked out into the grasses. Directly at me.

They all looked.

I gagged a cry as I fell back. Scrabbled to my feet, and as I ran the name of Acteon flashed in my mind. Turned into a stag for glimpsing the flesh of Diana. Torn to pieces by his own hounds.

I thundered up through the fields, expecting to be hauled down and back at any moment. I made it to the car and screeched away: lurching from pothole to pothole, muttering newly-made prayers as I steered wildly. “Zeus! Zeus protect me! Dear Christ, may Zeus watch over me. May Zeus get me out the hell out of here!”

I swerved around the blind corner, slammed on the brakes. Gorse blocked the road completely. I decided to abandon the car, run to the road. But it was too late. It had always been too late.

 

 

I write every day; their vessel. They pour sweet dew upon my tongue, and from my lips flow words of grace and limitless beauty. I murmur aubades and orisons over their fragrant flesh as dawn stretches her rosy fingers across the sky. Anointed with ambrosia, I imbue the land with sweet persuasion. I am prophet, mystic; I am priest, forging canons of scripture under the noonday sun. Larks sing of me; cattle bow down in reverence; swans thunder their great wings in awe. In forgotten languages, I beat out these women’s lives in sacred rhythms, drumming lyrics that rise beyond fact, beyond fiction, that soar wildly over uncharted worlds. I glorify them in song, in dance. I draw constellations down from the sapphire heavens. I trace epics in diamond starlight.

I sense the synapses firing in my brain. I feel the light—the heat of thoughts ravishing my organs, the lava of concepts flooding my atoms. I heal. Captivated, I inspire. Within this golden crucible, I conjure Tragedy and Comedy. I draw the indiminishable flames of beauty and love and passion and sex into expansive existence. I am Tradition. I am the messages that swirl within waves. I am the fire in the mind’s eye. I am the ages of the moon. I am the knowledge inscribed before the womb. Mine are the words that reverberate through this divine sanctuary, this gilded cradle, this never-quite-my-tomb.

Fay Devine and Tina Martin were on a six-month romp around the Mediterranean or, as I heard frequently in the Pan Pub & Bacchus Bar where I met them, for as long as the money lasted. Both were nurses, and both could drink, one better than the other perhaps and both wore glasses, one light, one dark, but all the better to see you with, to borrow a phrase from the wolf.

“I’ve come to Greece to learn about deities,” Tina declared and looked at me with bright eyes full of challenge, owl-like behind large, round, wire-rimmed lenses.

I knew she would have a learning experience in Greece, especially around the Old Port of Chania where many contemporary Greek gods in tight jeans and leather jackets hung out in dense bar and discotheque scenes, each with a tale of the miraculous to unfold to her. She knew about kamaki men, for she understood completely the effects of her well-contained charms, she in her busty little mauve suede vest. Her moves were efficient, designed for effect, and she measured her words knowingly. Typical was “fabulous” or “bull” or “he was an arrogant prick.” Tina projected a no-nonsense approach to things; she’d be the nurse you wanted on the ward overseeing your recovery, knowing that if you followed her directives, you would recover because disease and death would be browbeaten back.

Fay Devine, on the other hand, you wanted to lean over you, enfold you to her bosom, and cure you with love, or guide you with morphine and gentle mystery into the arms of forgetfulness and afterwards, perhaps, heaven. She was your pudgy cousin at fourteen who at twenty-two has developed voluptuous beauty. You see beyond her attempts to conceal it. You also wish then that she were not your cousin. But I did not feel quite that way when I first laid eyes on her.

Fay Devine: such an old fashioned name, I thought, as she sat there in faded blue denim overalls with one of the bronze bib buckles about to work loose, listening to her friend hold forth in that getting-close-to-drunk state of being, more tacit, perhaps, but just as complicit, and a little looser, Raggedy Ann with hair in braids on tour in Medusa’s playground. She had full, sensuous lips that broke into a smile whenever she caught me studying her. Symmetry played about her face, her complexion the olive gold of Greek girls, but I could not then tell absolutely about her eyes. She wore shades: large dark blocks that revealed nothing about what she might be thinking, blocks that gave back only the image of my own puzzled face. The sunglasses did not bother me as much as the occasional kick she gave me under the table whenever I said something clever.

I met them the evening after some expatriate poet in this same Pan Pub had assumed for me the role of chorus. Surrounded by cronies, he sang out the name Magalee in goat-like fashion as I passed his table, at which point every one with him erupted into laughter. I grasped immediately his satiric intent. Tina and Fay had a table near the door by the statue of the satyr whose leer was a wide as his erection was long, supporting the point ever so graphically that certain forms of art tend to hype, ridicule, and humiliate.

I looked at Fay, then at Tina, then at the satyr.

“Pathetic phallusy,” Tina said, and they both giggled like naughty schoolgirls.

“Shall I spell it out for you?” she added, and they both giggled again.

“I get it.”

“Not yet, you don’t!”

The Pan Pub and its intimate congestion gave you a sense of the palpable, of limb entangled with limb, of flesh potentially rubbing against flesh. I crowded in between them. I ordered beer. Tina ordered a couple of ouzos. Introductions followed.

They were staying in a new hotel with private bathroom and shower. Tina had had it with the conditions she termed “rank” on the ferries and in certain spots they had rented, with closet sized two-stepper toilets she did not know which way to face in.

“Fay accuses me of not knowing my ass from a hole in the ground!”

I looked at Fay. Her mouth creased mischievously.

The beer came and the ouzo. When they asked about me, my orphan persona presented himself but not very convincingly and not for very long. Growing mellow together, we talked of common travel experiences like a boat trip up the Bosporus, of Mediterranean light, and winter in Chania.

At one point I looked out toward the breakwater. An old blue Citroen with four pink fenders happened to be passing along the quay and temporarily blocked my view.

Into the space it vacated came Montgomery and Magalee arm in arm.

“Something wrong, Steven?”

I shook my head and looked away. Then I looked back at Fay. A smile broke around her lips, which she licked away with the tip of her tongue.

“It’s long story, originating deep in the heart of the Old Port.”

Tina disappeared with the waiter at some point. She wanted to throw plates. I knew of no place where she might, but apparently the waiter did. This left me sitting with Fay in a bar where pandemonium could break out at any time. Take off the shades, I wanted to say, but didn’t. Fay may have looked Greek, but a stand-in for Medusa with eyes that could turn me into a statue she was not, or not quite, or at least not yet.

“Let us take us, you and I, to a disco,” she suggested suddenly, and smiled. I thought she spoke whimsically; but no, she was serious.

“Sure. Why not?”

Fay smiled again, and I could already taste the cure for love in the parting of her full and sensuous lips.

Along the quays we ambled, Fay clutching a parcel to her breast in one arm, her other around me for support, making our slow way towards Circe’s. Fay kept repeating how cool it was to be walking just so in the oldest city in Europe, wondering if any of it were true. I wondered if she wore her shades to bed as a kind of protection.

When we met the blasts of syncopated rhythms on the threshold of the disco, Fay disengaged me, and in a series of quick breaths where she seemed to be biting at the night, informed me in so many words that we weren’t going to make it, not tonight.

Two flights up, half pull, half push, and sitting stupidly at every turn, we managed to get up to my place. Her ordeal lasted only a few minutes. Expectations’ perfect parody.

I talked quietly to her, soothing her with mummers of understanding. I washed her face and hands, the bib of her overalls, and her sweatshirt. I laid her down in a shirt of mine on the sofa where, in a pseudo conscious blubbering of apology, she crashed, exhausted, into a long and enduring coma. Then I washed the parcel that she had in her paroxysms heaved across the floor.

As for the sunglasses, they remained miraculously unsoiled, and I left them on her, the least I could do to respect her privacy.

I cleaned up the floor, rinsed the sink, soaked the sweatshirt and the bib, in my own dim witted way seeking a connection between excess and catharsis. This was Greece. I went out on the balcony for a last cigarette, wondering where the old Citroen with pink fenders had got to by this time in the oldest city in Europe.

Fay Devine: not the first girl I didn’t get to sleep with the first night.

 

 

I was reading when Fay awoke, her shades angled, half on, half off. Slowly she righted them. On my table I had orange juice, a liter of water, apples, bread, and honey.

“I feel ugly,” she said, inadvertently knocking the table.

“Something to drink? Coffee? The WC’s out back. A two-stepper. Sorry! Your things are over there, drying. Take your time, Fay.”

I felt responsible for her and wanted her whole again. I wandered out on the balcony for a while. Streaks of sunlight pulled at the sky, and small waves broke across the harbor. A wind was up. Venizelou Square appeared normal, with lots of people on the go. When it seemed as though all stopped what they were doing, and looked up to see what I was doing, I retreated inside, drawing the shutters after me. I lit a candle.

“We didn’t dance, did we?” Fay said when I sat down. She was drinking water and chewing on some bread. She had changed into her clothes, but still wore her shades. She made no reference to them.

“We tangoed up the stairs, and did a bit of a twist on this floor, but, no, we didn’t make it to Circe’s.”

“I’m trying to lose a little weight,” she said as though that explained what had

happened.

“Why?”

“Look at Tina.”

“Tina isn’t here. Besides, she’s tiny. And bumptious.”

Fay laughed, and that made me happy. She took a chunk of bread, spread honey on it and handed it to me.

“I’ll make it up to you,” she said, and bit into an apple.

 

 

Fay and Tina’s hotel room overlooked Plateia 1866. Twin beds took up most of the space. Reading material on the nightstand: a travel guide and a book of myths. An open commode in the corner revealed sundry articles of clothing and now the contents of Fay’s parcel, a long dress, much like something I’d seen Magalee wear, like something stripped from a marble statue and reworked with wonder and love into vibrant blue.

I lay down on a bed. Bemused yet somehow excited, I wondered if Fay showered with her shades on. I dozed off.

When I awoke, Fay stood before me wearing the dress. Her hair cascaded down in furls in some contemporary style, like that worn by Greek girls I had watched at the cafés, or Magalee wherever and whenever. She donned a pose for a moment, then broke it with a smile. Fay Devine—immaculate, beautiful, statuesque. Hers was not the face that had launched a thousand ships. She was not the fairy tale princess that awakens from the comma with a kiss. If it had not been for the shades, however, I might have believed she was both. I soon understood what she had meant by making it up to me. And in the heat of it all, her shades hardly moved.

When darkness fell, we went out to eat. She had a limited appetite, but what she ate she savored, giving me the impression that this might be her last meal. I caught glimpses of myself in her dark glasses studying her. She took golden crusts of bread and teased out curls of taramousalada, placing one first in my mouth and then one in her own.

“Bread,” I explained, “it comes with every meal here. Can’t resist.”

“So take this bread and eat me,” she said and put a sloppy piece into my mouth.

 

 

The most intriguing thing about Fay was her mad desire to dance. Music unleashed in her a divine fury, a primitive outpouring of energy where nothing seemed to matter but rhythmic movement, as though she were the only instrument for the heartbeat of the earth. At Circe’s that night, she drew me in with an irresistible magnetism, and I succumbed willingly. I had no place to go but where she led me, nothing to see but what she showed me, a mop-headed Madonna in bouncing bibbed overalls under madding strobe lights.

We were the only couple there, which made this scene of frenetic engagement all the more absurd, especially with the disc jockey at the bar chain smoking cigarettes and yawning. Mirrors made it seem as though the two of us filled the place. Only once did Fay, her forehead beaming with perspiration, remove her glasses, but she gave nothing away. Her eyelids were portals shut before the uninitiated, her long lashes, veils. All part of the game, and I played along most agreeably. I had developed theories about why she kept the shades on, the most disturbing being that she had a glass eye that saw deep into my future. All I knew for certain, along with Fay’s palpable imminence, was that I needed to change my shirt. Fay Devine—the essence of opulent female energy that seduced from the ankle up.

 

 

Fay asked me to leave the lights off when we got to my place, so I lit a single candle. Her mood had altered. Shadows flickered, playing out like private thoughts against the coming dawn. For her it must have been doubly dark.

“You could’ve been with Tina,” she said, sitting down next to me, her voice low, almost a whisper. “She liked you. I could tell. She said there’d be guys like you.”

I did not know how to take what Fay said, but I had the impression that she was holding back tears, and that vulnerability would assume some melodramatic form and ruin what had been up till then a perfect day. She reached for my pack of Papastratos and with the flame of the candle lit one. I watched her almost fighting the cigarette, blowing out smoke like so many phrases that would not work.

“Yeah right, guys like me,” I said, getting up. “We’re all kamaki when it comes down to it.”

“That would make it easier. No, you’re different. And I don’t just mean you’re a dreamer. I like you, and I like being with you. And you don’t ask dumb questions about why I do the things I do. Last night and today have meant everything to me. I love the bread thing, want more of it, can’t get enough, but—” She twisted out what remained of her cigarette.

“But?”

“But maybe you think I’m just using you. Or does a guy not think that’s possible? I’m confusing you, Steven Spire.”

“It wouldn’t be the first time a female has confused me.”

“You seemed so, well, depressed when you first walked into the Pan Pub, before you let loose a little. Vulnerable, even. Like you had just lost your best friend.”

“Right now, you’re my best friend,” I said, not wanting to get into details about either Montgomery or Magalee. “Right now, what’s here in this room is all that matters. So let what there is of that candle burn.”

“But certain things are implicit, aren’t they? We have only so much time, I think that’s what I’m trying to say.”

“Yes, but it’s Greek time. Go ahead, use me. I won’t object.”

“Even to wearing sunglasses in bed? You never questioned them, not even once.”

“Yes, I did, Fay, right from the moment I sat down and you kind of kicked me. At the Pan Pub & Bacchus Bar. So—”

“So why the shades? Well, it started out as a joke when Tina and I were with two

Israeli soldiers on leave in Tel Aviv. Tina’s idea. This whole trip was Tina’s idea, but I’ll get to that. To see how long I could wear shades before some guy asked me to take them off. Then it was how many days I could go.”

“Like a challenge?”

“Exactly. Then it became an education. Tina made the connection, when the ‘wasn’t he an arrogant prick’ started in earnest. Mediterranean men. Tina loves puns. She called the game pathetic phallusy—nature mocking the size of the male ego. The more I went along with it, the more her ridiculous theory, a control thing she said, proved to be true. I really began to enjoy the role. Woman of mystery! But I’m not mysterious, and it’s all more of a joke than anything else.”

“Oh, but you are mysterious, Fay Devine.”

“Not very. I’m rather obvious.”

“Not when you can make me feel like a character in a Ray Bradbury tromp l’oeil.”

I wanted at that moment to tell Montgomery about Fay. “Beat this story, beat this little bit of your mythic in the quotidian!” But then, I reminded myself, he already had. I preferred to stay with the here and now; and taking her hand, I asked: “Are you fey?”

“That’s what Frank says.”

“Frank? Who’s Frank?”

“I’m engaged to Frank.”

“Lucky Frank!”

“Well, sort of. Doubt comes over me, you know, premonitions. We’re supposed to get married next June. He’s interning now. Hates dancing. Loves Barbershop. Tina says he’s wrong for me. She’s known a lot of men, Tina.”

“Tina’s something else.”

“Gives as good as she gets. Got us into trouble a couple of nights, but managed to escape unsavory, wolfish characters with big smiles and bad teeth. We’ve been friends since high school, though travel with her has had its moments. I’m sorry for putting you through all of this when we could be breaking bread.”

As dawn light began to filter into the room and diminish the power of a single candle, Fay removed her sunglasses. She looked at me with dark, laughing eyes, full of assurance and contentment.

She kicked something under my chair, then stooped to pick it up. A gift from Montgomery before the rift.

“Neat owl. One eye is broken.”

“It’s kind of like a blink, Fay.”

She kissed my eyes shut, and in so doing allowed me to hold on to my illusions. Fay moved like the sea outside my window, and I moved with her, our bodies on creaking springs of ecstasy. We were joined at the hips and joined at the lips, unable to part. In flushes of erotic sweetness she worked a mystical enchantment that rendered me just about senseless. Then the paradox of physical separation, our tremulous and shivering nakedness touched by January whispers sweeping under doors and through cracks in a building centuries old where love and hate and life and death were memories and replays of memories, making us mindful of what passes for immortality during these ever so human moments in time. Then Venus on the rise again, her form the whole horizon. And had I been able to consume Fay entirely like so many luscious loaves of bread, it would not have been enough. Too much was never enough. Or did I flatter? Not her, my perceptions of her and the mystery that cloaked her there standing naked before me.

Montgomery had not lied; he had only told part of the truth.

 

 

Tina led us into Skridlof Street. Tina looked at everything, but had nothing in particular she wanted to buy. I contented myself just watching her try on earrings, necklaces and rings. She was pert and pretty and decided.

Fay had sandals in mind, and I loved to watch her model different pairs, and purses too small for her, and satchels too awkward, and lace up boots she had no intention of owning. But mostly I was happy just to listen to her murmurs, and fondle her with my eyes in wistful glances across the heaps of woven things or between the stacks of pungent leather. I prized her most among the copper pots and brass scales and candleholders in the shops of the tinkers. At times when fingers of golden light caught her on the brow, I wanted to cast her in bronze. She was so beautiful. Only art could hold that beauty forever.

“In here,” Tina directed, “I love this stuff. It’s fabulous.”

Faces of saints looked out to us from behind the golden mists of the beatific vision. They followed our progress in the aisles of the living through the candelabras, the censers, the lamps.

“These things fascinate me,” Tina said, picking up an ikon of John the Baptist.

“This makes me want to examine my values. Consider redemption as a real possibility.”

“Feeling guilty again?”

“Oh, Fay, you’re such a pagan! Where’s your sense of beyond the flesh? Everything here’s so orderly. It’s all about resurrection, isn’t it?”

“Too artificial. Too austere.”

“Steven?”

“Too challenging for me, Tina. The complexity of Byzantine metaphysics. I agree with Fay.”

“Besides,” added Fay, “I prefer Steven’s resurrections of the flesh.”

“Fay, you really are a pagan!”

“No halos here.”

I had not paid too much attention previously to these religious shops full of dusty ikons. I had always seen faces of the apocalypse, previews of the Second Coming looking from windows out into a street like Halidon and its passing traffic, narrow heads with wide eyes full of longing.

“All right, Fay, forget the philosophy. I like them as art. Figures contemplating the future through veils of gold. Nothing more.”

“Well, that settles it then,” Tina decided, leading us out.

On the shelves of the store next door, a different kind of dust had settled. Sitting behind his desk, a man with a leer for a face looked Fay and Tina up and down and then all over. His generous arms welcomed us in to view his extensive pantheon.

Helmeted, owls attending, wise Athena observed from on high as we moved about. In the likeness of Botticelli’s Venus, a naked white Leda glanced sideways at the long, up-thrust neck of the swan at her feet. The Bull of Minos stared above the heads of Minoan figurines.

“That racked-up snake goddess, very interesting,” said Fay.

“Oh, Fay, you’re so—”

“Special winter price!” said the man from a few feet away.

Demeter, next, a sheaf to hand. And near her, but not that near, Persephone.

“I like her the most,” said Fay, touching Persephone.

“For such a sweet little goddess,” said Tina, “she can be such a bitch. From what I’ve read, that is.”

“No, it’s the lost then found thing that I like.”

“Like what this trip is all about, Fay? Here today, gone tomorrow? I’m just kidding, Steve.”

“I still like her, Tina, like the idea of her.”

“For you I make special price,” offered the man as we made our way to the door.

We kept a leisurely pace along the lane. In one of the leather goods shop, I bought for Fay the sandals she finally settled on. In another shop, she and Tina tried on belts, some two and three and four inches in width, and the shape of time was redefined. She flirted at length with the young salesman, while the older woman at the counter rolled her eyes in a variety of telling ways. Time with Tina had to be measured in seconds and minutes and be full of quips and lover’s fallacies, a twist on Greenwich time. With Fay, and regardless of what was implicit, seconds, minutes, days, nights, all flowed out of Greek time.

“Get a load of that!” Tina broke out, pointing into the display window of a men’s underwear shop. “What a joke!”

An eight-inch marble statue of Zeus in classical pose: his little bearded face all frown and determination, he was throwing a thunderbolt, decked out in a miniature pair of double stitched, form fitting blue briefs.

“That’s pathetic,” I said.

“Yeah, pathetic phallusy,” Tina said

“No, I really mean it’s pathetic.”

“Steven, you’re such a purist!”

Tina left us at the end of the row, saying that she would catch up with us later.

 

 

The fantastic little Citroen with the pink paint job was parked near the entrance to the market.

“How about an apple?”

“Touch only what you intend to buy, Fay. Otherwise—”

We poked along eating apples, like innocents with an allowance to spend and everything at our fingertips, but we were spending with our senses, taken with the aesthetics of arrangement designed to lure and seduce. We sat down for coffee at one of the booths in the east sector near a kiosk. Display racks within easy reach revealed cat calendars and cleavages, smiling Cretan mountain men leaning on crooks, sandy bare bottoms of the summer time beaches, and various other scenic views, including many of the Old Port. Fay bought a postcard depicting the laughing countenance of a goatherd

“For Frank,” she said, and began writing. I picked up a postcard of the market and penned a few impressions as a memento for Fay. She kicked me under the table after I read her the line about the two of us poking along like innocents through the sawdust and the blood.

 

 

Tina left a note saying said that she would be at Erato’s, that we should join her and her beau (a Gallic euphemism for Greek kamaki, the note explained) to enjoy a program of Bach advertised for that night. We went to The Stygian Cave instead. That become the pattern for our nights together: we always had the opportunity to hook up with Tina, but managed to do so only once, the night a waiter from the Pan Pub got into a shouting match with a waiter from Circe’s that Tina dubbed the wolf. Other than for a few hours here and there, Fay and I were inseparable, and we played out the same themes with unplanned variations: different cafés, different walks, different tavernas, different positions, but the same imminent lips, the golden brow, the deep, dark eyes, and my same eager willingness to transcend time.

During those few hours here and there, when Fay returned to her hotel, I returned to my room and my intermittent journal scratching where I recorded impressions of her and detailed the places she took me to, places I thought possible only in the arms of Magalee. I cursed the words that failed to hold the realities and I remembered how Montgomery once complained about the impotence of language. I tried to get beyond images of Fay in a blue dress dancing barefoot with anklets on. Fay with gold dust on her brow. Fay like Raggedy Ann in faded overalls, hair coifed by Medusa. I strove desperately for other awakenings, tried to recapture the experience of how, whether in darkness or in light, fingers, knees, tongue serve to open up interior spaces, to rediscover the already known, the already known many times over that nonetheless begs to be rediscovered.

“How can every pore be an erogenous zone?” Fay asked, shivering, licking what had to be morning dew from above her lips.

“Because in spite of what you might believe about yourself, Fay, you are so beautiful.”

An illogical answer, perhaps, but true.

I wrestled with logic and language, making every effort to deal with Fay’s question truthfully. To understand what motivated her to say I was a satyr with angelic appetites. Or why her quivering eyelids moved me to tears. Or why her face, such a beautiful face, could furrow as though in agony and foreshadow darker things. Her heartbeats, the heaving of her breast, her cries of pleasure made me fearful. Fearful because I could not possess her completely.

I ripped out many journal pages.

And when efforts proved futile, and when eyes opened at dawn to see the arrangement of exhausted passion, ripped out pages passed for truth.

“Do Botticelli’s Venus,” I said as she rose to stand naked and trembling. “Or something classical.”

I wanted to work imprints of eternal beauty into what had blossomed between us,the better to capture her and it beyond the forms of time. And when I remembered the ikons and what Tina had said about them, I realized I had been developing my own sense of veneration, ethereal perhaps, but also of this world, tracing lines of former deities, human figures shaped by perfection, carved in marble or cast in bronze.

She stood contemplating the moment, then draped the sheet about her artfully and holding over her right shoulder the plastic water bottle she had taken from the table, assumed the appropriate form. She closed her eyes and became rigid. I held her thus in my mind, statuesque as always, but removed and unmoving, idealized, like bronze, like marble, like stone. Half willing her to remain that way forever, half afraid that she would, I held out open arms to her. She broke the spell completely when she jokingly asked for her shades.

“Your turn,” she said after I had enfolded her in my pea jacket. “Do me the satyr from the Pan Pub!”

Then time resumed its old resolve.

“If I write, you’ll write back?”

“Postcards. But if I don’t write to you, I’ll write about you and how you used me.”

Implicit things. I knew, however, that I was letting her go because she was not a real goddess. And I could not capture her in stone.

A Gypsy family and its little trained bear were entertaining travelers amidst the noise and confusion of the Chania bus station. People with bags and boxes and bony elbows pushed their way through the seams, and shouted over the sound of horns and the squawking of the PA. Buses were everywhere they could be, taxis and automobiles just about everywhere else.

Having secured the seats that she wanted, Tina waved, blew me a kiss, then plunked herself down out of sight. Framed by their window, Fay raised her shades, smiled, pressed her lips to the glass, pulled back and then dropped the shades back on her nose. I held up the candle she had given me just before boarding the bus. In response, she bit off the end of a loaf of bread.

A Gypsy boy stood before me, his tambourine extended top down for collection.

He grinned as I searched my pockets for change. And then, as quickly as diesel fumes can make eyes water, Fay Devine was gone.

 

The old blue Citroen with flying pink fenders turned right off Gianari. I followed it down Halidon back into the heart of the Old Port.

 

Seagull groaned as she cocked an ear toward the forest floor below. Her cousin, Raven, hopped along the trail, whistling as though he was just minding his own business. Seagull knew better–Raven was never up to any good. And lately, he had been up to even more mischief. Seagull reached for the cedar box she had been given, the one that Raven wanted her to open so that everyone could see the contents. She tucked the box snugly into a crook in the tree and sat atop it, as though it were an egg that needed protection and warmth.

“Good morning, Seagull,” Raven called up from below. “It’s a lovely day today. Or, at least, I think it’s a lovely day. It’s hard to see, but it feels just perfect. At any rate, won’t you come down and enjoy it with me?”

Seagull folded her wings across her chest and huffed loudly. “I can feel the lovely day, as you call it, just fine from here, thank you.”

“Then how about I come up?” Raven asked. Without waiting for his cousin’s response, he flapped his wings with a mighty WHOOMP and landed directly beside her.

Seagull considered getting up and moving to a different part of the tree. But she had found that it was impossible to fly, and difficult to walk, while she clutched the cedar box tightly shut under one wing. It was also a significant chore to move around in the complete darkness that covered the world. She shifted her body away from Raven, trying to ignore him, but her cousin was known for his persistence.

“So. Aren’t you even the tiniest bit curious about what you’ve got in there?”

“No.” Seagull sighed. “I know exactly what is inside of this box. Just as you knew that the box you were given contained the Trees, and just as Salmon knew that the box that he was given contained the Sea.”

“Then what is it?”

“It is called Light. It is…” She trailed off for a moment, unsure about how to explain something that even she had not yet seen. She understood what Light was meant to be, but she did not have words that could describe it.

She continued. “It is the opposite of this.” She waved her other arm, the one that was not tucked around the box, at the darkness surrounding the two of them.

“What does it look like?” Raven asked.

“Like… Light. I do not know how to explain it to someone who could not possibly understand it, like yourself.”

“Dolphin is good with words. Why don’t you take it down and show it to her? Then she can tell me, and all the other animals, what it looks like. We’re all terribly curious.”

“I am sure that you are,” Seagull muttered. “But, I do not want to show it to anyone. It is mine. It was given to me. I am going to keep it in this box for as long as I live.”

Raven fluttered his wings as though he was preparing to take off. “You know, all of the rest of us opened up our cedar boxes and shared the things we were given. You’re the only animal who has refused to open yours.”

“And that is my choice,” Seagull replied. “Each of you chose to open your box, and I choose to keep mine closed.”

“Fine,” Raven spat back. “Enjoy sitting up here with you box. I’m going to go find something to eat.” He squinted into the darkness and muttered, “That is, if I can find anything to eat.”

***

The next time Seagull awoke, Raven sat beside her in the tree, wedged between her and an upward reaching branch. She could not see him, but she could feel his feathers shifting as he breathed. She had fallen asleep sitting on the box, and repositioned herself slightly to make sure that Raven hadn’t snuck it out from under her during the night. The hard edge of the lid against her underside relieved her worries. The fact that it was still dark meant that he had not removed its contents and then put the box back beneath her.

Raven smelled different today, and Seagull did not understand why. But something about his scent made her think of Salmon and Dolphin. She tried not to think about her friends as her insides churned, empty and cold.

“What do you want now?” she asked.

“Oh, I just wanted to tell you about the thing I found in the sea. It was so delicious. I don’t know what it looked like, but it had a hard outside with thorny parts. And it was chewy and wet on the inside. It tasted like the sea.”

Seagull’s stomach rumbled softly, but she ignored it. “That sounds disgusting.”

“No, it was really good! Mmmm… just thinking about it makes me hungry again. But I can’t tell you what it looked like, because I really couldn’t see it.”

“What a shame.” She turned her head away from Raven, hoping it would take his strange scent away.

“You know, if you wanted to come down to the beach with me, I might be able to find more and let you try one. Of course, it would probably help if I could have just a little bit of Light.”

Seagull slid off of the top of the cedar box to interpose her body between the box and Raven. She nudged him gently at first, trying to get him to move away. When he stayed in the same place, she gave him a bit of a firmer push with her hip. Raven stood his ground.

Seagull picked up the cedar box and threw her other wing up in exasperation. “Why do you keep bothering me about the Light, Raven? I have told you that I will not open this box for you or anyone else.”

“Not even for food?”

Seagull shrugged. “I am not hungry. I do not need food. Neither do you, to be perfectly honest.”

“But it’s so yummy!” Raven exclaimed. Seagull could hear him rubbing his belly with one wing.

Seagull’s stomach rumbled, louder this time, but her expression did not change.

“Alright, fine,” Raven said. “Suit yourself. But know this. I will find a way to make you open that box. Just you wait.”

“I am very good at waiting,” Seagull replied. And with that, she stared in Raven’s direction until she felt his weight drop off of her branch. She heard him laughing as he plummeted downward. The sound of his wings unfurling came from far away, moments before he would have otherwise hit the ground.

***

Seagull was beginning to miss flying. She had been sitting in her tree for some time now. She had no way of measuring time other than by Raven’s occasional visits. But it seemed that Raven had left her alone for some time now—longer than he had ever left her alone before.

Her hunger had been sated when some insects had crawled too near to her perch. They had not smelled nearly as good as whatever disgusting thing Raven had found in the sea. She suspected that Raven’s catch had tasted infinitely better as well.

Seagull began to pass the time by seeing how far she could move while keeping hold of the box. Every time she got too near to the end of a branch, vertigo threatened to overtake her, and she moved quickly back to more stable terrain. She thought of the way that Raven always left the tree, his laughter pealing as he dropped like a stone, before he righted himself and flew away. Even if she could make herself take that leap, she was fairly certain that with one wing around the box, she would not be able to make the quick adjustment to horizontal travel.

She had nearly worked up the nerve to try when Raven returned.

“Still holding onto that box?” Raven asked. Seagull did not respond, and he continued. “Look, I’ve been talking to some of the others, and they’ve all agreed that you are really very strong and thoughtful, holding onto your cedar box for so long. The rest of us, we were all reckless to open ours so quickly. And now we’re all envious of you and your treasure, which is why we’d really like for you to open it.” He glanced around. “I’m not supposed to tell you this part, but the others want to throw you a big party, if you’ll come down and open that box for everyone.”

Seagull scowled at Raven, but knew that he could not see her expression. She ruffled her feathers a few times, and her cousin got the message.

“Okay,” Raven continued slowly. “No party. You got it.”

“I do not care if the others want to throw me a party. But if they expect me to open this box, just because they have celebrated my strength and thoughtfulness, they are horribly mistaken. How many times must I tell you that I will never willingly open this box?”

“Probably a few more,” Raven replied. “Oh, were you wanting to get down from here? Kinda looked like you were thinking about jumping.” He chuckled. “Nasty way to go. But I find it’s not that easy to fly with one bad wing.”

Raven leapt from the tree and cawed, to let Seagull know where he was. She heard his wings flap lazily for a few minutes, his voice coming from various places around the tree’s trunk. Then the rhythm of his flapping wings sped up. The leaves rustled in the wind created as Raven made his way between them. He came closer and closer to Seagull with each pass. Finally, he landed. “Oh, I’m sorry. I forgot you can’t exactly follow me with that box under your wing. Hmmm. Yeah, it sucks to be you. Well, if you change your mind about the box, let me know!” He fluttered off again without a sound.

***

Seagull had peeled pieces of bark from the tree and wound them around the cedar box. She had poked at the lid with her beak and claws, and it seemed secure. She picked up the end of the bark rope and tested the weight of the box. It weighed nothing at all. She moved away from the center of the tree and finally allowed herself to drop from the outstretched branch.

After all of her time spent cooped up in the tree, flying felt amazing. She wanted nothing more than to linger in the sky, but as she flew, tree branches kept swatting her across the face. She could feel their presence only mere seconds before she was upon them, leaving her no time to dodge. Exasperated, she circled her tree one last time before landing on the forest floor.

Pain shot through Seagull’s foot. She squawked out loud, unable to hold in the sound. Her foot felt as though something sharp had stabbed clean through it. Stumbling, she set the box down and hopped up on top of it. She sat back on her haunches, off of her injured foot, but the pain continued. She tried to touch what was causing her so much misery, but she could not reach her own feet.

Swallowing her pride, she called out loudly. “Help! I need help.”

Far sooner than she expected, she heard Raven hop up the trail again. “Sea urchin!”

“What are you talking about? I have an awful pain in my foot.”

“Sea urchin is the name of the thing that I found in the Sea when I was hungry.”

“Why are you telling me this?” Seagull cried. “Why can’t you just help me?”

“Sea urchin is also the name of the thing that has little spiky parts, like the spiky part that’s sticking out of your foot right now. I don’t know how it possibly could have gotten all this way from the Sea!”

Seagull looked around, wondering how Raven knew what was in her foot. “Can you see it?”

“Oh, no, I can smell it. Can’t you?”

Seagull moaned. “It hurts too much. Can you take it out of my foot?”

“Well, I can try. But it’s so dark here that I’m going to have a difficult time of it.”

Seagull felt Raven’s wings on her foot. At first, their gentle touch helped her to take her mind off of the discomfort. But then a new lancing pain shot up her leg and she screamed.

“No, no! That’s not helping! That’s hurting.”

“Seagull, I can’t see what I’m doing. It’s dark, in case you haven’t noticed. I can tell that you stepped on a sea urchin. I can only assume that you have at least one spiky part in your foot. Maybe there’s more than one.”

“Just take it out, please,” she begged.

Raven prodded Seagull’s other foot for a moment, and then returned his attention to her injured foot. Again the feeling of being stabbed increased and Seagull cried out.

“Seagull, I want to help you, but I can’t unless I can see what I’m doing,” Raven pleaded. “Please, can you let just a bit of Light out of the cedar box? Maybe then I can do a better job.”

Seagull hesitated, but her misery made her reconsider her earlier position. Slowly, she rolled over on top of the box so that she could chew through the bark strips that held the lid on the box. As she worked, she noticed a scent like the Sea lingering in the area. Although she could not see them, she realized that Raven was probably right. They were everywhere, these dangerous sea urchins. And they didn’t smell nearly as good as they had after Raven had eaten one.

“Can you eat it?” she said, craning her neck back toward her cousin.

“Eat it? What, you meant the part stuck in your foot?” Raven scoffed. “No way. The good part is after you get rid of all of the spiky parts, and get to the inside. No, the outside part you just throw away.”

Seagull sighed and lifted the edge of the lid of her cedar box.

Tiny specks of Light flew from the box, whizzing past her like Raven did when he was showing off. The specks spread out across the Sky above, covering it with a blanket of twinkling little pinpoints of Light. The Light illuminated the forest floor, and Seagull could see the outline of Raven’s head, which he had moved very close to her hurt foot.

“Thank you, Seagull. I can see a little better now. Hold on while I try again.”

Seagull gripped the edges of the box with her wings. Raven’s wings brushed across her feet again, and then the excruciating sting blossomed yet again. “No,” she gasped. “Not better.”

Raven frowned. “It’s still very dark. Can’t you let just a little more Light out?

“Surely, you can see by the Light that I have given you. I see all sorts of shapes now. I even see your sea urchins all around the base of my tree.”

“Yes, I see things a little more clearly now as well. But I can’t see well enough to tell you why this spiky part won’t come out of your foot. I think it’s caught on something. Please, Seagull, I just need a bit more light.”

Seagull shuddered, barely able to move. Finally, she gripped the lid tightly enough to slide one corner off of the box.

A pale glow slid from the corner, forming into a shimmering pool of silver. The pool lifted from the ground and shaped itself into a round disc that flew higher and higher. When it reached the level of the Sky, it stopped and affixed itself amongst the smaller specks. The silvery glow shone across the forest, and Seagull could now see Raven’s face for the first time. Her cousin looked concerned.

“What, what is it?” she breathed, barely above a whisper.

“There are smaller spikes on the side of the spike. That must be why I couldn’t get it out of your foot. This new Light helps a little. Perhaps now I can do it.”

Seagull lay on the lid of the cedar box and gripped it tightly. Raven wrapped one wing around the foot that had been pierced by a sea urchin. The Light from the silvery disc outlined the edge of the feathers on his other wing as it moved slowly toward Seagull’s foot. She squeezed her eyes shut, anticipating the jolt of pain.

Though she thought she had readied herself, nothing could prepare Seagull for the burst that seemed to pulse through her entire body. She cried out, a long, drawn out squawk, but the agony did not subside.

“More light!” Raven shouted, just barely audible over Seagull’s wailing.

Seagull clung to the lid as though her life depended on it. The tips of her wings dug into the sides of the box. The pain was so intense that she could only barely understand her cousin. She could feel him move the sea urchin spike around in her foot. It almost felt as though he was playing with it. She slid her body off of the box and steadied herself on her uninjured foot. With a quick twist, she swung the box around and slammed it into the top of Raven’s head. “I’ll give you more light,” she snarled.

As the box shattered, brightness suffused the entire area. Seagull had opened her eyes a bit as she moved, and now she squinted against the Light. It was so bright that she could not even see the form that the Light took, but its radiance bathed the entire area. Raven stood in front of her, reeling from the impact of the box, covered in downy white. As she watched, his feathers smoldered, singed black by the burst of fiery Light that had come from the box when it broke.

Raven shook his head to clear it. “You just hit me!”

“I am sorry,” Seagull murmured, hiding her amusement. “The pain drove me out of my mind for a moment.”

At the end of one wing, Raven held a slender white spike, far thinner than even the finest feather.

“That is all that was in my foot? That caused so much pain?” Though the pain had now vanished, Seagull’s voice was shrill and sounded as though she was still crying out in agony.

Raven nodded. “So much easier to see, now that we have Light. Now I can warn you to watch out for the other spiky parts.” He waved one wing across the forest floor, gesturing toward the sea urchins that carpeted the area.

Seagull looked around at the sea urchins, now blanketed with shards of cedar from her box. Any momentary sadness she might have felt over the loss of her treasure was replaced with the relief she felt now that her foot was not a constant source of misery. Still tender, though, she kept that foot raised to her body and balanced on the uninjured foot. She pecked lightly at one of the sea urchins until she was able to flip it over and expose the softer underside. The scent of the Sea wafted from the creature, and Seagull leaned forward to eat.

She stopped herself and turned to Raven. “Thank you, Raven. You have saved me.”

“You’re welcome. Oh, and thanks for the Light.”

Without another word, Raven flapped his wings furiously and flew away from his cousin towards the brightly lit sky.

Visit Dawn Vogel online. Vogel is assistant editor for Mad Scientist Journal, available at Smashwords. She has stories in two Timid Pirate publications (Cobalt City Dark Carnival and Cobalt City Timeslip), and a story in In Situ (Dagan Books).

10 November 1918, Verdun, France.  Harold Flansburg has been stationed at that hell of a battlefield since October.  This hallow ground resembled nothing like it was a few years before.  Hundreds of thousands of men passed through this fortified city to their death.  Their presence could be felt across the battle-scarred land.

A whistle blew.  It was time to go over the top.  Countless men climbed out of the trench under fire from German machine guns.  Their mud soaked olive green uniforms and roughed up doughboy helmets faded to black as the men became silhouettes before the setting sun.

“Here we go again,” said Harold before climbing up the ladder into no man’s land.

“The Yanks are coming one by one,” said David Marshand following Harold.

“Hooray! Hooray!” said Benjamin Richards sarcastically following David.  “So much for that circulating armistice rumor.”

“We all know an armistice won’t stop the Boche,” said David as Ben reached no man’s land.

All three men were privates for the American 26th Division.  The first fully formed American division to arrive in France to combat the Germans.  They had been going toe-to-toe with the Germans for months.  After each battle, they always licked their wounds and fought on.

Nearing the German trench Harold felt a bullet whiz by his face.  He fired his Enfield rifle from his hip and got off a lucky shot, taking out the German who nearly got him.

The three men stopped dead in their tracks as a wave of Germans jumped forth from their trench.  Their dark gray uniforms blended well with the ground.  Dozens came charging at them yelling in German.  With only seconds to fire off a few shots, they found themselves thrown into hand-to-hand combat.  Up against a unit of Prussians, elite soldiers in the German Army, rifles became clubs and bayonets were drawn as a giant melee commenced.

Harold, David, and Benjamin were bloodied as each fought off the Germans one or two at a time.  For every German they killed another took his place.

“Flammenwerfers!” yelled out an officer from a good distance away from them.  “Get back to our trench!”

Harold saw a dozen or so soldiers with gasoline tanks strapped to their backs marching from the trench.

“What?” David cried out.

“Flamethrowers!” responded Harold.

The men retreated back to their trench caught in the crossfire of two armies.  Bullets whizzed in every direction.  One of the flammenwerfers was hit.  The bullet passed through him and ignited the gasoline tank.  Harold could feel the heat from the ignited tank.  Men from both armies ran in different directions burning to death before his eyes.

The flammenwerfers lit no man’s land on fire.  The wounded of both sides screamed.  Harold, David, and Benjamin had already reached their trench and jumped back in.  The sound of their comrades’ screams made them wince.  They knew there was nothing they could do for them even after the men with flamethrowers disappeared.  Snipers would be waiting for them to come to their aid.

Benjamin peered over the trench and watched as American snipers and machine gunners gunned down the flammenwerfers.  He felt relieved.  If the fire had reached the trench, all hell would have broken loose.

Benjamin crouched down and wiped his right hand across his face in an attempt to remove spattered blood.  “Christ! Where did all those Germans come from?  We shelled them for days.”

“I don’t know but you got first watch tonight followed by Harold,” said David.  “I got third.”  He immediately took his helmet and covered his face with his back against the wall of the trench.

* * *

Harold was half an hour into his watch.  He heard nothing out of the usual: Random sniper fire, the cries of the wounded, short bursts of machine gun fire.

He looked over at David and Benjamin, who were sound asleep. Something he wished he could go back to preferably in his own bed.  With no beds, they slept curled up on the back wall of the trench.  It was slightly muddy from the rainstorm a few days back.  Slight mud was a good condition in the trench.  On a bad day one to two feet of water left a man soaked and giant rats scavenged his deceased friends for food.

“I need a smoke,” he said out loud to no one in particular.

Harold’s bag sat beside him in a few inches of mud.  He reached inside with one hand to find that his cigarettes were not where he had left them.  Using both hands with his face almost in his bag he began shuffling items around to find them.  Harold was panic-stricken; his overnight smoke was the only thing that kept him going on night watch.

“Oh sorry, I took your last tobacco stick,” said an unfamiliar voice with a slight Austrian accent directly across from him.

Harold looked up and saw a miniature man standing before him.  He was about six inches tall wearing a long pointed red hat, a blue jacket, green pants, dark brown lace less shoes, and a small knapsack.  His clothes were only slightly dirty compared to all the soldiers’ uniforms.  Almost as if he kept himself well tailored despite the war that had left the majority of Europe in rags.  In his right hand he held a small pipe filled with tobacco from Harold’s cigarette.

“Mind if I smoke?” asked the miniature man raising his pipe.

Harold stared at him in disbelief for a minute.  “You’re the smallest Frenchman I’ve ever seen,” he finally said.  A French soldier’s uniform was similar, a blue jacket with red pants.

“Frenchman!”  The miniature man chuckled.  “Haven’t you ever heard of a gnome before?”

“No.”

“The name’s Hans.”  A big smile appeared underneath his beard.

“Harold,” Harold said holding out his hand to shake Hans’ little hand.  “If you’re not French, where are you from?”

“I come from an area controlled by what you know as Austria-Hungary.”  Hans took a drag from his pipe.  “Well what part of Europe are you from? ‘Cause your tobacco isn’t like anything I’ve smoked before.”

“I’m from America, New England to be exact.”  Harold still did not know what to make of him.

“Hmm, I’m unfamiliar with America and New England.  Is it anything like England north of us?”

“It use to be part of England until we fought for our independence.”

Hans had a puzzled look on his face.  “You fought for your independence and now you fight in the same trenches they fought in?”

“Yes, well … Germany kept sinking our ships so my country declared war and here I am.”  Harold pulled out his canteen and had some water.  He held it out as a gesture to see if Hans wanted any.

Hans grabbed the canteen with one hand and took a small gulp.  When he handed it back Harold could not believe that he had the strength to single-handedly pick up the canteen.  “Thank you,” he said.

An American machine-gun went off in the distance.  They could here a few Germans scream.  It would have been unusual if there were a night where machine guns would not fire.

“You’re not a spy are you?”

Hans chuckled.  “The only reason I’m sitting here right now having this conversation is because four years ago two friends of mine and I made our bi-yearly journey to France to buy a large supply of wine.  We could easily maneuver around the fighting until the winter of 1914 when all the trenches were constructed and the area you call no man’s land became a death trap.”  Hans paused his faced saddened.  “Roelf died in 1915 trying to cross during an artillery bombardment and Victor in 1916 during the largest battle I’ve ever witnessed.  The Germans entered the trench we were living in and laid waste to everything in an act of attrition.  Victor pushed me out of the way when a grenade landed near us.”  Hans tone became angry as he spoke of the Germans.  He tried to hide it but he was very bitter toward them for the loss of his friends.

Hans’ storytelling ability was unlike any Harold had heard before.  As he retold this journey he spoke in a way that painted an image in Harold’s mind.  He could imagine the three gnomes trekking across Europe.  He could hear Roelf scream in agony in no man’s land.  Victor’s sacrifice to save Hans was an image he had seen repeated many times by many soldiers in many battlefields.

“This is the worst war I have ever witnessed let alone heard about.  I became a soldier because both my father and grandfather served and they brought home stories that entertained us for years.  Before this I went to Texas where it was hot and we did nothing but march around and drill in the sun in our thick cotton uniforms.  I’d take that situation again over this anytime,” said Harold.

“I was a child when Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo.  My father and I were making the bi-yearly wine trip when we just happened to witness the battle.  Back then everyone wore bright colors and it was quite a spectacle.  I am glad I didn’t take my son with me for this trip.”

“You have children?” asked Harold taking a sip from his canteen.

“Twins, a boy and a girl.  I just hope my son is learning what he must while I am away… he’ll come of age in just twenty-five years.”

“How old are you?”

“One hundred and forty.”

Harold looked at his canteen.  “Nobody lives that long.”  He laughed.  He had never read any of the folklore about gnomes.  He knew nothing about their longevity, mighty strength, let alone their existence in the real world.  “I can’t be drunk!  This is definitely water I’m drinking.”

Hans chuckled.  “Unfortunately this is as real as it gets.”

Harold and Hans sat in silence.  Neither wanted to be there.  Not a day passed that Hans did not miss his family.  Harold pulled out a picture of his dog.  He got her about four years before he joined the National Guard unit that was part of his division.  She was a black Labrador retriever named Lucille.  Whenever he was not on base he spent as much time as possible with her.  He had not seen her for two years now.  He hoped she would remember him when he returned home for he was a changed man from the war.  Not having to many friends back home, his dog was important to him.  He trained her to retrieve birds when he hunted.  A small tear rolled down the side of his cheek.  Hans saw it but did not say anything.  In the trench, none of that information mattered.  They were stuck in a kill or be killed environment.

“There’s a rumor that an armistice will be signed soon,” Harold said putting the picture away.  “But if you’re in a hurry to get home maybe I can help you out.”

“How so?”  Hans was intrigued.  This was the first soldier to actually offer him help.  The French soldiers before him became so startled from the sight of a gnome that they jumped back too high and a sniper got them.  The British soldier he once met was taken away believed to be ‘unfit’ for the front.

Harold emptied a pouch on his belt and condensed it into another pouch.  “This pouch stays pretty much behind me every time we charge the Germans.  If we go over the top tomorrow and I can make it through no man’s land then you can make your way through the German lines back home.”

“I suppose you don’t have room for a bottle of Chardonnay too?”  Hans said with a straight face.  After a brief moment he began to chuckle as he had been and said, “I’m kidding.  I lost that wine back in 1915.”

There was a loud whiz in the air.  A large artillery round landed in front of the German trenches.  Followed by several more whizzes and explosions.

Hans jumped into the pouch as David and Benjamin suddenly woke from the artillery bombardment. Harold put on the belt and stood up.

David and Benjamin did the same.

All three were looking at the German trench.  Their artillery pounded it like something they had never seen before since arriving on the Western Front.

“Oh good, another offensive,” said David.  “You know what that means.”

A sergeant they did not recognize was making his way down the line spreading news to each soldier.  When he reached the three of them he said,  “This is a fine artillery bombardment boys and the last of the war.  The Boche have agreed to a cease fire as of 1100 hours.”  He walked away to continue spreading the news.

David pulled out his pocket watch.  “It’s 0400 now.  All we need to do is stay alive for seven hours and we’re home free.”

“Excellent.”  Hans said from the pouch.

“Did you hear something?”  asked Benjamin.

“Maybe it was a ghost,” said Harold.

“Plenty of those around these parts,” said David.  “Let’s not become one of them.”

* * *

1015 hours.  The men were ordered to stand-to in preparation to storm the German trench.  The shelling of the trench had been consistent for the past six and a half hours but reduced to random inconsistent rates of fire.  As that slowed, the men knew they would be over the top any minute.

“This is crazy,” said David.  “An armistice goes in effect in forty-five minutes and we’re still making an offensive.”

“Suicide.  Utter suicide.”  Chimed in Benjamin.

Harold twisted his belt and opened the back pocket as if he were looking for something.  Hans was sitting comfortably, whittling a small piece of wood.  Harold nodded to let Hans know they may be going over any minute now.  Hans winked to show he understood.

The three men were anxious now.  The shelling completely stopped.  The moment of truth was near.  Would they survive this final segment of the war?  Or would they become another casualty like millions before them?

Harold struggled to attach his bayonet to the end of his rifle.  His hand was trembling.  All he had was forty-five minutes.  “Home stretch,” he mumbled.

American officers blew their whistles.  The men poured out of their trench in full force.  Over the top they charged through no man’s land like there was no tomorrow.  They were more than halfway through no man’s land when German machine guns opened fire.  Hot lead shot through the air right at them.

Harold felt a sharp bee-like sting in his left leg.  His leg trembled and he dropped to the ground rolling into a crater.  The crater was deep enough to shelter him from the line of fire.  He laid on his right side knowing Hans was still in his back belt pouch.

When he looked down he saw a hole in his leg that was bleeding.  He grabbed right above the wound to apply pressure and screamed in pain.

Hans cut his way out of the pocket with the knife he used to whittle.  He ran around Harold and examined the wound.

“Keep still,” he said sternly when he poked the wound with a stick that was on the ground.  “I’ve seen worse it looks like one of your nine millimeter bullets or a piece of shrapnel hit you.”

Harold rolled onto his back and said, “There’s a first aid kit in my right belt pouch.”

Hans opened up the pocket and saw a roll of gauze and scissors.  “We need something that can keep pressure on your leg.”

“There’s a rifle over there.”  Harold pointed to a rifle with attached bayonet on the other side of the crater.  “Cut the strap off.”

Hans ran over and took the bayonet off the end of the rifle and cut off the strap.  As he ran back to Harold there was a loud explosion behind him, knocking him to the ground.  He lifted his head to shake the dirt from his beard.  Getting back up, he made his way back to Harold.

“Lift up your leg.”  Hans said so he could loop the strap around Harold’s left leg.  He tied it tight.  “Good?”

“Yeah.”  Harold said wincing in pain.

Hans grabbed a small leather bag from under his blue jacket.  He opened it up and sprinkled dark green leaf fragments into the wound.  “This will sting a bit but it will help the wound heal faster and cleanse it.”

“Thanks.”  Harold said slightly delirious.

Hans covered the wound with the gauze and made sure it was secure.

“Sorry I couldn’t get you to the trench.”  Harold pulled out a pocket watch.  “Ten forty-five.”  Harold laughed.  “Fifteen minutes, that’s all we needed. You would have been on your way home.”

“I’ve got fifteen minutes to make my way through,” said Hans taking off his hat.  He put it in one of Harold’s belt pouches.  “This red hat will stand out too much.”

“You’re still going for it?” asked Harold.  The stinging was beginning to stop.

“Of course.  There are enough distractions I can sneak by without anyone seeing me.”

“Good luck my friend, maybe one of these days if you ever make it to New England you can look me up.”  Harold smiled.

“I might have to take you up on that.  I love your tobacco.”  Hans winked and chuckled like he did the night before.  He ran out of the trench and was out of sight before Harold could say good-bye.

* * *

Shooting turned to silence, silence to cheering.  The war was over.  Two Americans found Harold sitting in the crater.

“Get a stretcher over here,” one of them called out.

The same man ran down. He examined Harold to determine if he could lift him.  “That’s an excellent field dressing.  You do it yourself?”

“I had help.”  Harold held out his hand.  “Help me out of this trench.  I don’t need a stretcher.”

The soldier lifted him up and he put his left arm around him.  When he got Harold out of the crater Harold saw Americans occupying the German trench.

“What happened?” asked Harold.

“It’s 1300.  The war’s been over for two hours,” said the soldier.  “We took the trench at 1130 and the Boche never sent reinforcements.  Only an officer to ensure the armistice went into effect.”

“I made it.”  Harold said looking up at the sky ignoring the soldier at this point.  He reached into his right belt pocket and found Hans’ hat in there.  He looked at it for a second.  He could hear that little gnome’s chuckle like he was still by his side.  Harold let out a brief laugh.  “Let’s go home.”

Evangelia   (Gospels)

The song of the Northern Cardinal:  clear slurred whistles, lowering in pitch.  Several variations.

–  Peterson’s Field Guide to Eastern Birds.

Of those mentioned, the one I am most familiar with:  what-cheer cheer cheer.

I reread the online comment again.

He’s one of the ones I haven’t heard back from.  Maybe it’s against Fr. John’s orders to attend a class reunion.

I was sure the abbreviation was something Catholic, but whether Friar or Father, I’d have to do some research.  Everyone I’d grown up with had been Catholic – except me, the outsider.  But John had been anything but religious.  John had been a baseball nut.  John had loved the Beatles.  John had drawn irreverent comic strips during homeroom.  John had been my best friend.  And a priest now?

Now was thirty years on.  I hadn’t spoken to him since after our freshman year of high school; since that summer I’d first fallen in love, and then moved away.

The poet Callimachus told of how Athena took the young Tiresias’ sight for having seen her bathing naked.  As recompense to his distraught mother, the nymph Chariclo, he was given the gift of understanding birds.

For he shall mark the wand’ring birds that fly

To right, to left, along th’ ætherial sky,

Shall read their motions, as they swiftly spring,

Observe the flight of each unprosp’rous wing,

And utter sacred truths.

(Trans. W. H. Tytler)

Augury, as it was called, could reveal the will of the gods.

After school let out that last summer, we played baseball every day, rain or shine.  If it was raining we lay sprawled across the floor in John’s basement, playing Strat-O-Matic, and listening to his older brother’s Beatles albums; otherwise, we found two more players and spent all day at the diamond behind the middle school.

Pitcher, batter, shortstop, outfielder.

Right field was out.

Hits were run out, then runners became invisible.

Outs were made by tagging the base, runner, or pitcher’s mound.

Three outs to a batter.

Players rotated through positions after each inning.

I was most comfortable in outfield, where success depended on knowing how to position yourself  precisely to where the play would be.  Just me, alone with the birds that would land between pitches to pick through the grass clippings drying in the sun.

Actus   (Acts)

On the first day of November, 1970, the retired French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre established the Society of St. Pius X.

A former missionary in Africa, he did this at the behest of a group of French seminarians in Rome who claimed persecution for their adherence to pre-Vatican II teachings.

For doctrinal reasons the Vatican denied SSPX canonical status in the Church.

Eighteen years after its founding, Lefebvre was excommunicated for consecrating four bishops against the express orders of then Pope, John Paul II.

Three years before, as I found out, my best friend John had been ordained in Écône, Switzerland by Archbishop Lefebvre himself.

Had the Archbishop ever even seen a baseball game?

Epistola   (Epistles)

The Black-capped Chickadee’s song is a clear whistle, fee-bee-ee or fee-bee, first note higher.

Spring mornings, over and over, just beyond the shear curtains of my open window, what I heard was a child’s exaggerated uh-oh.

Second note lower, longer.

I was the oldest of two boys, as was John.  My father was a large man; I was more like my mother in temperament and build.  I was quiet when unsure of myself, a trait I learned to compensate for by being in the right place at the right time; a place I would wait, patiently, silently.

When I first saw Joan in freshman Geometry, she was confident, outgoing, effervescent, and buxom.  Whereas I was background, Joan embodied everything that was present, everything upon which the spotlight shone.

Unable to summon the confidence to speak my love, I declared it in a carefully typed note – unsigned, and slipped into her locker.  The response was ecstatic and terrifying.  Suddenly, everyone knew at once she had a secret admirer.  She wondered aloud who he was; the candidates, all upperclassmen, were tall and articulate.

I sent more notes.  Her ideals grew in stature.  And then I wrote it.  I’m not sure what I expected, but I wrote:  If you ask me to my face, I will tell you who I am.

The augur, typically a priest in Roman times, would “take the auspices,” from which we derive the words:  auspicious, favorable, and inauspicious, unfavorable.

The first century Roman historian Livy explained that augury does not predict what one should do, rather it looks for signs confirming that what one has already decided to do will be looked upon favorably by the gods.

Augury, in Roman times, was autochthonous.

Looking for signs of approval has a long history.

The House Sparrow is a non-native species introduced from the Old World.  Its voice is typically a chirrup, tschip, or philip.

An outsider.  Everywhere.

In 1983 Lefebvre sought the opinion of his priests on the consecrations he was about to perform.

Those who disagreed with him were removed from their posts.

We moved the summer after my freshman year.  I never adjusted to the new high school.  I did well academically, but friends were few and far between.

For Senior Prom I returned to my old school at the invitation of Joan when my then girlfriend  found a last minute invitation to Daytona Beach more appealing than a night of dress-up with me.  I already had the tux and Joan sewed her own dress.  John hadn’t been there.

The next morning, before the bell for first-hour English, she simply started at the front of the room and marched down each aisle:  Is it you?  Is it you?  When she finally reached me, I managed to speak loud enough to be heard over the beating of my own heart.  On hearing me answer yes, John, who sat at my left, stared before shaking his head and turning away.

When I saw Joan between classes later that day, she said she just liked me as a friend.

Being neither tall, nor articulate, I just nodded.

Another version of the myth has the adult Tiresias coming upon two snakes mating.  He strikes them with his staff.  Hera punishes him by turning him into a woman.  Years later when Lady Tiresias again comes upon two snakes she wisely leaves them be.  Hera restores his masculinity.

Later, when asked to settle an argument between her and her husband, Zeus, over who enjoys sex more, a man or a woman, Tiresias, who has experience as both, says women do.  This not being the answer Hera wants, she promptly strikes Tiresias blind.

Zeus compensates him with foresight and seven lifetimes, and, one would hope, counsels him to avoid Hera in the future wherever possible.

After supporting the Society’s missions in Missouri, Colorado, Ohio and California, Fr. John assumed the post of Prior at a mission Church in Oregon in 2005.

After school let out for the summer an ad hoc group of friends formed.  Girls and boys, we road our bikes until dark then either went home or, on most nights, settled at someones house.  We’d all head to the basement; put on LPs; listen to Donna Summer, Barry Manilow, Saturday Night Fever; then dance.

When she finally asked, I confessed I had never danced before.  The challenge just seemed to excite her and pretty soon I was stumbling around, our fingers entwined, a hand on her hip.  And when she leaned into my chest for a slow dance, the sweetness of her hair mixed with sweat made me forget to move my feet.

When it got late we’d hop on our bikes and head home.  I rode with her the extra mile to make sure she arrived safely.

I didn’t expect anything.  She let me, and I liked her company.

We were just friends.

The alarm call of the Blue Jay is a harsh slurring jeeah or jay.  The call grows more rapid with the bird’s agitation and proximity of the threat.

The staff of Tiresias and its transformative powers later came into the possession of Hermes, and in some versions, along with the two entwined snakes, became the staff of the Caduceus, the universal symbol of healing and medical practice.

Some days after we finished playing Strat-O-Matic we’d turn off all the basement lights and play hide-and-seek with our two younger brothers.

It was John who suggested we collude to rearrange the boxes packed beneath the stairs so that there was a hollow in which we could hide from our brothers.  As we’d wait in silence I’d closed my eyes and take in the smells as his mother did laundry above us.

After the initial success we supplemented the space with a blanket, flashlight and pillows enabling us to hide indefinitely.

For the SSPX, traditional mass is to be delivered in Latin.

I recall John rolling dice; setting the batter’s card alongside my pitcher; reading across, then down to determine the outcome.

Although I try, I cannot imagine John learning Latin, much less speaking it fluently.

Latae sententiae in canonical law indicates a punishment automatic upon contravention of a law.

Two weeks before the moving van, I rode with her back to her house, as I had done most every night for the past few weeks.  This time, as I turned to leave, she leaned across my handlebars and, with head back, kissed me full on the mouth.

I was at once tall, my tongue articulate.

And as I rode home alone, I was overcome with an intense feeling of love entwined with betrayal.

I wasn’t there when his mother discovered the pillows beneath the stairs.

John said she was so upset she hit him with a broom while throwing a rapid slur of Slavic syllables at him.  He said it was difficult to understand, although one word seemed to come up over and over.

In actuality, the Caduceus is the symbol of commerce, not medicine.  The mix-up being of military origin, specifically, a U.S. Army captain in 1902 who confused the Caduceus with the Rod of Asclepius when designing the insignia for medical personnel.

So go the benefits of a classical education.

The morning the moving van came I had three home runs and eleven runs batted in; and John gave me my first LP, The Beatles, more commonly known as “The White Album”.

That evening Joan and I kissed in the emptied basement and promised to call each other every day.

As an expression of his deep Catholic faith, the modern French composer Olivier Messiaen incorporated birdsong into much of his music.  He traveled extensively with his wife, transcribing the songs of exotic birds in the wild.

Messiaen’s first work, based solely on the transcription of birdsong, was a piece for flute and piano, Le merle noir (The Blackbird), 1952.

Sixteen years later an Englishman, himself on a spiritual trip to India, composed:

Blackbird singing in the dead of night

Take these sunken eyes and learn to see

All your life

You were only waiting for this moment to be free

(P. McCartney)

Side 2.  Track 3.

In January of 2009 Pope Benedict XVI lifted the excommunication of all four bishops and Lefebvre.

We managed to stay in touch throughout high school, and when Joan decided where she would apply for college I applied to the same.

We resumed our relationship in college.

She married me after graduation.

I stood by silently as love faded to transparency.

A year later we divorced as friends.

et cetera

Apocalypsi   (Revelation)

I woke early this morning to an unfamiliar song on the salt breeze.  I repeat the notes and cadence to myself, committing the pattern to memory.  The song is melodious and welcoming.  A favorable sign.

After checking out of my room this afternoon, I’ll follow the birds inland, toward the Cascades, maybe stop in Eugene on my way and search for a bookstore, search for a copy of Peterson’s Western Birds.  Then, I’ll look for the right place, the right place to settle and wait.

I look to the risen sun each day, and cant:  Dum spiro spero

And translate for you, in our common tongue:  While I breathe, I hope

I meet Raven on the road to wonderland. I have never been to wonderland, and have begun to doubt its existence. There are many rumors and fairy tales, tall tales and stories regarding its magnificence. I decide to see where the road leads. A long and winding road it has been, and now Raven.

Raven is ill and grounded, unable to fly, unable to walk. He lays dying, coughing blood and crippled to the edge of darkness.

Raven calls my name. I approach the ancient trickster with caution. I have heard of his powers of persuasion, of mockery and deceit. Still, he is an alluring beast with shiny beak and midnight oil feathers.

“Save me,” Says Raven.

“I don’t know how,” I confess.

“You must blow the sickness from me.”

I take two steps back.

“Don’t be afraid,” says Raven, “Use your arms.”

“I don’t know how to use my arms to blow someone,” I say, “Sounds more like you want a hand job.”

Raven coughs crimson poison. He laughs ruby spittle that sticks to his beak. “Create a wind force with your arms, flap your arms as if they were wings and blow this poison out of me.”

I was relieved that Raven was not attempting to seduce me into sexual favor, out of pity for his sickness. You have no idea how often the trickster would try a trick like that. I laugh and shrug my shoulders. I lay my knapsack down. I extend my arms and push the air towards Raven.

The huge black bird looks dead. There is no movement, no vital signs that I can detect. Yet still, I do as he asks. I flap my hands towards his face, at least a cool breeze for when he releases the ghost. I flap harder and harder. I can see his eyes flutter and a gossamer cloud of black dust begins to fade from his feathers. He coughs up more blood, a richer, darker blood. I notice that the blood is more like an oil than actual hemoglobin.

“Keep going,” whispers gravely ill Raven.

I close my eyes and flap and flap my arms and hands. I stretch out my palms and fingers and flap and flap. I flap with supernatural force. The skin grows between my fingers until my hands are webbed. It becomes harder and harder to flap. The bones in my arms begin to stretch. My chest expands by three hundred percent. The pain is immense, but I can not stop flapping. I can feel the bones feeding from the muscle in my arms as they stretch and stretch. I shit my pants. I shit so much my pants rip from my legs. I shit ten, twenty grams, all while flapping, flapping, flapping my now impossibly elongated arms. I shit out thirty, forty grams of undigested grain and onion from my colon.

My lower intestine squirts from my asshole and transforms into skin. Yet still I continue to flap, harder and faster, the force now almost impossible to control. I can hear the force ten winds howl and scream, the trees crack in the distance and the ocean waves crashing in the further distance.

I open my eyes, all the while flapping, flapping. There is a torrential storm and I am causing it. I see the last of the Black Death hanging onto Raven. The dust and the oil of sickness are being blown away by the hurricane gale I am generating with my enormous wings. I realize first that my chest is three times bigger then when I started, and so are my arms. My skin has thinned and stretched from my fingertips to my ankle.

It seems I have traded my opposable thumbs for wing tips. My waist is thin and most of my digestive system has been transformed into glider skin around my ass and genitals. I feel awkward.

Raven is fine. He is a magnificent animal, an albino with clear blue eyes. He stands three times taller than me and with a wingspan vastly superior. “As a gift for curing me, I am going to let you keep your wings, and from now on all of your offspring will be able to fly like you.”

“Yeah – I’m not so sure I want to fly.” I respond, hopefully not too disrespectful to Raven.

“Of course you do. Everyone does.” Raven lets out an uproarious and glorious CAW that shakes the mountains. He stretches his mighty feathers and leaps into the air, flapping, flapping, flapping heavily, yet effortlessly.

“What if I don’t want to fly?” I respond but it is too late, the crafty bastard is off.

So I continue to walk down the road to wonderland, dragging my new winged form. After an hour or so it occurs to me that I can fly. Why not give that a shot? So I flap and flap, but my heavy and useless arms can not generate the same gale force winds they were creating when Raven was in need. I am not able to fly unaided.

On the path to wonderland I meet a squirrel who tells me that when he learned to fly. He did so by simply jumping out of trees. I wonder if I might not try the same method, so I climb the highest mountain. I walk to the edge of the mountain and look over. I see the tops of golden eagles as they circle beneath me, and the light of small cities in the distance. I walk back as far as I can and I take a running start and I run… I jump off the mountain and leap off.

I spread my wings and begin falling straight down, very fast. I spin out of control. I decide to tuck my arms back and dive head first, straight down. I dive like the falcon. I am not afraid because the emotion of fear only strangles the attempt. I spread my arms halfway while simultaneously spreading my legs. The wind feels sharp and cool zipping across what was once my lower intestine, but now acts as a rudder for my gliding.

I gradually arch my back and curve my once vertical descent. I eventually level off. I am not flying but I am gliding. I catch a thermal vent and jet horizontally across the sky. I flap my wings, which does little more than disturb my trajectory. I regain my gliding composure and decide to relax and see what I can see.

I enjoy the freedom, the light; the weightlessness. I can finally see Wonderland in the distance. I should be there by morning.