The cavalry camped out in the steppe grass by the creek. Half of the men disrobed, bathing off the dusty grime of the country we’d ridden through. There were enough soldiers chumming up the brackish water and I decided to wait my turn for a rinse.
Smith hummed to himself by the campfire, taking out some of our precious stores for mess. The smell of fried beans wafted over.
“How much we got?” I eyed our dwindling supplies.
“Enough for the winter!”
I spit out my tobacco and counted the months in my head, calculating that the war might be over by then, when Smith stood and shaded a bony hand over his brow. “Lookout’s coming!”
Continue reading “[Fiction] The Natives”
Grandmother in the old country never had an orange, for where she lived it was cold ten months out of the year. She knew the taste of seal blubber and could read the hooves of caribou, calculate the freshness of their crossing by turning her face into the wind; for they carried a musty scent and brought old ice with them. But she had never had an orange. It was her daughter who grew up with oranges, peaches and apples, flown or shipped from places more southern than she ever had traveled, tinned in dripping sauce or dried to crisps. And it was her granddaughter in Florida, who picked tangerines fresh from a veil of leaves, but who never knew the thunder of caribou’s hooves as they pierced the white, white snow.
George looked forward to the Christmas party each year at the office. He had worked at Schaffer’s for twenty years in the accounting department, poring over numbers from 8am to 5pm. On Wednesdays, he hit the gym for an hour, just enough to keep him vaguely in healthy shape. He wore nondescript dress clothes in the tan to mahogany hues his father used to favor, keeping a kind of nostalgic camouflage. But tonight (he checked himself in the bathroom mirror) he was going cheetah.
“Hi George,” Patty greeted him when he entered the party. She slid one manicured crimson nail down his spectacularly spotted tie. “Leopard this year?”
“Cheetah.” George smiled.
“Feline tonight, eh?” said John joining their group. He clasped George on the shoulder and called over his own shoulder to Lenny, the Director’s Assistant. “You owe me 20 bucks, Len!”
Lenny came shuffling over, plastic cup of beer in hand. “And here I was sure you’d go zebra, George!”
George laughed. “Yeah, well, I still have the rest of the zoo to go through.”
They made small talk; inquisitive, prying eyes seemed to find George ever so often conveying a confiding, sly humor. He soaked the attention in like a plant thirsty for sunlight, grinned into his glass, and started planning his next pattern.
Stephanie was the girl next door who spent summer nights on the steps of her porch with her elbows hanging off her folded knees. She scanned the stars like George read his books, searching for a deeper meaning, looking for something with which to navigate his own life.
“I’m going to leave here, one day,” she said when he sometimes came over and sat down on the porch with her. He was careful to avoid the floorboards that creaked. “I’m going to go there,” she said and pointed at the sky and arched her path down into the horizon – the dazzling journey of a comet.
“I’ll miss you when you go,” George said. He never said if; impossible wasn’t in Stephanie’s vocabulary yet and he didn’t want to destroy her ignorance.
“Of course,” Stephanie smirked wryly, “I’ll kiss you before I leave.”
Then, George got his draft notice. Stephanie packed him lunch and walked him the long way down, around the Old Pond, to the enlistment office. When it was time for him to go to boot camp, Stephanie lingered by the fence that separated their houses.
George turned away from his mother.
“Aren’t you going to kiss me goodbye?” Stephanie asked across the pickets.
“No, because I’m going to come back,” George promised, his eyes as earnest as he could make them.
“Good. Because I won’t be here.” Stephanie smiled. She turned her back on him to walk inside. “But you’ll probably want to make sure anyway.”
Joey was a poor architect. Aloneness made a cavern open up inside her heart. She had filled the abyss with people and distractions, but sometimes, the floor caved in and she found another undefinable emptiness. It was hard to get up, to make plans, when the foundation insisted on crumbling. It was why she avoided talking about herself, because so few could understand that struggle. Those who did had their own rotting floorboards, obstacles, and lifelines to tiptoe upon. The only possible conversation between them happened in the eyes.
Of the boy, there was nothing left
except pottery shards and a handful
of harmonica reeds
on the old homestead.
The problem with online booklists, Lissel thought, was that they made you conscious about not only what other people were reading, but how fast they were doing so, and how many friends had decided to discuss their literary aspirations with them. A place that fostered nerdish fraternity, a niche for the language-inclined, became a comparison chart. And it became increasingly distressing, downright mortifying, to know that a book, well-loved, and well-lauded (in no less than an average of 5 out of 5 stars!) by the mass public made one yawn and want to hang oneself. There was persecution and then there was willing self-immolation, and Lissel was through with both. She couldn’t quite chuck her laptop in the trash though, and so resigned herself to peeping between her fingers if she happened to (accidentally, I assure you!) land on anything remotely related to the Lists.
For five years, Charles paints pictures of a slender teenaged girl whose face is never fully revealed. Sometimes, there is the jut of her shoulder blades on a low halter dress or an ankle lifted to better show off the gemstone set in the center of her heel. The hair is bobbed, long, or curled, but always the same wispy blond of fading sunlight.
His patrons think she is a past lover, a child lost too soon to the world, his soul trying on a new identity, a new gender. But she is his mother as he does not know her, for no child can know their mother as the child she was, once upon a time.
In that, Charles (even unwanted, abandoned) is reassured that he is just like all other sons.
Justine told him to meet her at the iron gates.
Laurie wore his Sunday best and his sharpest shoes and he scrubbed at his skin with sand taken from the beach when the water from the well ran muddy from the summer rains. His mother pinned a wildflower on his lapel. Cap in hand he waited by the gilded entrance and paced back and forth, hoping beyond hope until the sun set and disappeared.
Justine met him in secret in the thicket the next week.
“Why didn’t you come?” Laurie asked as she wove his wildflowers into a necklace. Sometimes she didn’t like the look of one and would throw her work away to start afresh.
“But I did,” Justine replied noncommittally, her eyes angry and blue, “by the servant’s door.”
Deborah sunk her toes into the wet sand where the edge of the water lapped in enticement. Fifteen-odd years since she had smelled the brine of the Sound, the suffusion of salt like a fine powder tickling her nose and down into her lungs. The pulse at her neck fluttered and something else she had not felt in a long time.
Two warm hands cupped her bare shoulders where the sun had tanned them brown.
“Come over,” George whispered and kissed her behind her right ear. “The kids have a birthday surprise in the bungalow.”
Deborah laughed and turned, kissed him fondly on the cheek where there was stubble. He’d been clumsy that morning shaving, all sleepy-eyed and lazy and adoring. Tropical paradise could dull even the sharpest of men.
“In a minute,” she promised.
She watched her husband lope back to their rental house, until even the speck of him was gone. Then with shaking hands, she opened up her canvas bag and dug beneath the sunblock and extra towels for an old ratty sealskin. She took a deep breath, felt the gills around her neck open fully, threw the skin like a shawl around her, and ran for the ocean.
Di-Ah was going home.