Flash-fiction: In Every Age

<a href='https://www.123rf.com/profile_karaidel'>karaidel / 123RF Stock Photo</a>Cantor Sylvia never expected to be playing the guitar and singing ancient songs in the lounge of a starship, but then, she’d never expected to be on a starship in the first place. She was too old, they said. She wouldn’t last the trip from Earth to Centaurus.

And yet, here she was, sitting in the common lounge, staring out the huge window – viewports -they called them viewports –  at the streaking stars, her great-grandmother’s acoustic guitar resting against a belly that had seen a few too many latkes and maybe not enough salad in her lifetime, sharing the old songs with kids who would never remember that they came from Earth.

Actually, the Goldberg twins had been born under the dome at Curiosity Village, on Mars, and little Rachel Levi had grown up at Luna Colony. Earth might be in their blood, in their DNA, but it wasn’t where they were from. Not the way she was.

She played the chord again, and saw the children gathered around her focus their attention. And why not? They’d grown up with digital instruments: violins and cellos that relied on computer chips for their tone, guitars that made their sound through a wireless amplifier, and pianos that could be rolled into a cylinder the size of a zip-top sandwich bag. Her guitar didn’t have any chips, and it couldn’t be made smaller. It was wire and wood and care and love and history, and its lines were the only ones Sylvia had caressed since her beloved Harry had passed on five years before.

“I’m going to sing you an old song now,” she told them. “And you’re going to sing it with me. It’s in Hebrew. So, listen once, and then repeat.”

Mi yimalel gvurot Yisrael,
Otan mi yimne?
Hen be’chol dor yakum ha’gibor
Goel ha’am!

Their singing was tentative at first, as their tongues learned the shapes of the long-ago language of their people, but they repeated the verse and then moved on to the next, learning the words a line at a time, and then singing them as a cohesive verse.

Shma!
Ba’yamim ha’hem ba’zman ha’ze
Maccabi moshia u’fode
U’v’yameinu kol am Yisrael
Yitached yakum ve’yigael!

“But what does it mean?” Rachel asked.

Sylvia understood that what the little girl really meant was, Can we sing it in English?  She reached out and tugged one of the child’s strawberry-blonde braids. It was gentle. Harmless.  “My granddaughter used to ask me that, too,” she shared. “In English, it goes like this.”

Who can retell the things that befell us,
Who can count them?
In every age, a hero or sage
Came to our aid.

The little girl wrinkled her nose. “I like it the other way better,” she said. “It’s prettier.”

Sylvia’s eyes twinkled, and her face stretched into a broad grin. “You know what?” she asked. “I like it both ways. Do you want to know why?”

“Yes, please.”

She changed her focus to include all the children. “When we sing it in Hebrew, we’re remembering the old stories, the country and the planet where all our families originated. And when we sing it in English, we’re making our stories and songs accessible to new generations. Someday, maybe we’ll sing these songs in languages Earth has never heard – or Mars or Centaurus either.

She didn’t really expect the children to respond, but when she looked up, she saw the reflection of their parents in the glass of the window – viewport – whatever – for they had gathered around behind her during the singing.

“Can we do it again?” Benjamin Goldberg wanted to know.

“Yes,” Sylvia said. “Yes, we can.”

They say space is silent. They say that you could scream your loudest inside a starship, and never be heard beyond the hull. But on that night, Sylvia was certain, if there were any creatures who existed outside the warm and oxygen-filled atmosphere of their vessel, they would have heard the voices of children and adults lifted in song.

 

Notes: Mi Yimalel is a traditional Jewish song, and was suggested by my friend Joy Plummer.  Photo Copyright: karaidel / 123RF Stock Photo

Elseblog: Sunday Brunch: The Coming of the Cardinals

The Coming of the Cardinals

 

On the first Sunday of each month, I write a column called “Sunday Brunch” over at the e-zine Modern Creative Life. This excerpt is from the piece I published in November. You can read the whole piece here. You can also listen to me read it at BathtubMermaid.com.

Excerpt:

We have a whole family of those bright red birds, and they return every year. The females are feathered grey and rust and red, and arrive with the first signs of being egg-heavy. The males are brilliant crimson and scarlet, and when they cock their heads and stare at me from their bright eyes, I’m convinced they’re appraising me in the same way I’m assessing them.

At the beginning of the season, I watch them building nests, but as the fall deepens into what passes for winter in this part of Texas, they aren’t quite so visible. Instead of witnessing constant activity, a morning visit feels like a kind of gift from Mother Nature herself.

It’s not only live cardinals that come into my life each year, however. As I slowly turn the decorations in my house from fall and harvest, Halloween and Thanksgiving, to winter, Christmas, and even Valentine’s Day, these ruby-plumed birds have a presence inside my house.

Cold as Ice

Empty Sky Photo by Maia Habegger on Unsplash

The winter ocean was dark blue and slate grey, and the waves were choppy and tipped with white, but Harmony didn’t feel the cold when she was swimming. And she was swimming, fast and purposefully, following the hiss of raindrops falling in the cold sea, and the rumbling voice she knew so well, except that this time, her thunder god, her Oskar, wasn’t merely calling her name. He was singing.

Vinterns frost har fångat min skog

I vitt ligger kullar och berg

Frusna fält där ängarna låg

Som bly ur himmelens färg  

The louder his voice became, the more intense was the precipitation. Rain was joined by sizzling sleet and hail that sounded like jingle bells.

She found him, sitting on a blanket of white fur that was spread across an ice floe. She knew he’d registered her arrival, but she let him continue the song, his voice vibrating through her and compelling her to move closer.

Vandrar kring i min vinters land

Längtande efter en värmande hand

Långt, långt bort är mitt paradis

Stelnad och kall är min själ

Som av is

Harmony folded her arms on the edge of the fur-covered ice, and rested her chin on top, keeping her tail in the water. Oskar met her eyes, and quirked his scraggly brows at her, hesitating for a moment.

“Keep singing,” she told him. “It sounds wistful; sing away the pain.”

The man who boomed when he spoke was so much softer when he was singing, that the siren in her couldn’t help but be drawn to him. She didn’t understand his language, but it didn’t matter. She comprehended the emotion.

Oskar acknowledged her request by falling back into tempo.

Tänd en glöd i min vinters land

Räck genom dimman en värmande hand

Visa väg till mitt paradis

Stelnad och kall är min själ

Som av is

 As the last note died away, so too did the ice and water that had been falling from the sky. Oskar patted the fur beside him, inviting Harmony to join him, and she accepted his wordless invitation, hoisting herself onto the ice.

He wrapped her in more white fur, pulling her back against his chest, and she relaxed against him, enjoying the warmth of his arms, of his body, of his breath tickling the back of her neck as he nuzzled her hair then lowered his head to place a gentle kiss on her shoulder.

She kept the tip of her tail-fin in the water. Later, she would allow herself to form legs – Oskar would keep her warm – but for now, just being held was enough. She stretched her head backward for an upside-down kiss.

They were quiet, just being together, for several minutes, and then Harmony rolled in Oskar’s arms and her tail melted away.

Their joining was mostly silent. Sighs and moans, soft murmurs, low rumbles. Words weren’t needed.

Afterward, nestled against Oskar’s chest once more, her delicate legs nestled between his more powerful ones, his arms crossed over her belly, her head tucked under his chin, she spoke again. “The song you were singing… what did it mean? Can you translate it into my language?”

The thunder god didn’t speak, but he hummed the tune once, and then again, and his voice flowed through her body and filled her as much as their joining had. He was silent for a moment. Then he wasn’t. Softly – well, softly for him – Oskar began to sing the song, in the language of the mermaids.

Winter’s frost has captured each tree

The hills are all covered with snow

Frozen fields wherever I see

And gray skies wherever I go

Wistful herself, Harmony interrupted the song. “I’d like to see fields someday. I’ve never been that far inland. Would you take me some time? It doesn’t have to be in winter.”

Oskar’s reply came in the way he held her tighter for a beat or two, then loosened his grip. He hesitated, likely translating the next part of his song for her, and then the music resumed.

Wandering in my Winter’s land

Longing once more for the warmth of her hand

Far away is my paradise

Bitterly cold is my soul

Cold as ice.

Under the furs, Harmony covered his hands with her own. “Paradise is right here,” she insisted. “Right now.” She turned in his embrace, kneeling between his legs so she could meet his eyes. “Paradise is every moment we have together. I will always come when you call.”

Oskar lifted his hands to the mermaid’s face, caressing her cheeks, pushing her hair back, and then covering her ears before he spoke. “IT IS NOT ENOUGH!”

“No, it’s not enough, but for now it’s all we have.”

“I KNOW.” He paused and smiled. His hands still protecting her ears, he said. “YOUR TURN TO SING.”

Harmony smiled. She knew Oskar wasn’t referring to music.

Their second time was full of passion and heat, and they were both panting when it was over, though panting eventually faded into softer, sleepier sounds.

Harmony woke to a full moon and a starlit sky. She stretched her arms and flexed her toes, and, reluctantly, she woke the sleeping thunder god. “I have to go,” she said. “I’ll see you soon.”

She kissed him three times and then slipped back into the water and began the swim toward home, but his voice called to her under the waves, and she broke the surface to look back toward his ice floe.

Soft snow began to fall like stars that melted into the waves.

Light a fire in my winter’s land

Let me once more feel the warmth of her hand

Lead the way to my paradise

Bitterly cold is my soul

Cold as ice.

 

Notes: Inspired by the song “Som Av Is” (“Cold as Ice”) by Roger Pontare. Song suggested by Berkley Pearl. Photo by Maia Habegger on Unsplash

Only if it’s Eartha Kitt

Santa Baby - Eartha Kitt“If I hear one more remake of ‘Santa Baby,’ I swear I’ll scream, Lena said as she poured hot water – just off the boil – over the hand-filled sachet of orange spice tea waiting in her mug. “Really, it’s the most insipid song.”

“Except when Eartha Kitt sings it,” her niece amended, in the sort of sing-songy tone that meant they’d had the same discussion more than once.

“Well… Eartha. Eartha Kitt could do no wrong.”

“So you say.”

“So I know,” the older of the two women answered. She joined the younger at the table, carrying her mug with her. “You’re not drinking your coffee.”

“I was waiting for you,” the younger woman said, amused affection in her tone. “Besides, it’s still plenty hot.”

“Hmph.”

Both women were silent, stirring their respective beverages in a fashion that made it obvious they were related.

Finally, the younger woman spoke, her words coming out in tentative fits and starts. “Listen, Auntie… I was wondering if you’d join us for Christmas this year. Mom won’t admit it, but she really misses her favorite older sister, and there’s someone I want you to meet.”

“I’m her only older sister,” Lena replied automatically, but then she continued: “Oh, Tessa, I don’t know…”

The older woman’s dithering lit a fire in her niece. “Aunt Lena you have been playing hermit at Christmas since I was sixteen years old. I’m twenty-six now, and Brian is probably going to propose on Christmas Eve, and I want my only aunt to be there.” She took a beat. “Besides, who else will I be able to mock all the cheesy Christmas music with?”

It would have been obvious to an outside observer that Lena wanted to agree almost as much as Tessa wanted her to. “He’s really going to propose?”

“I’m almost completely certain.”

“And you’re sure you want to marry a musician.”

“It worked for you, didn’t it?”

“Well… yes.”

“So, you’ll come?”

Lena fussed with her tea, removing the sachet to a small glass dish that was waiting to be used for that purpose. “I guess I will.”

“Yay!” For just a moment Tessa was a child again, delight written in every line of her.

“Can I bring anything?”

“A positive attitude,” Tessa answered immediately. “And that record you have – the one on vinyl – of Eartha Kitt singing ‘Santa Baby.'”

 

*Inspired by a recent conversation with my friend Fran, and of course, the incomparable Eartha Kitt. Also? Welcome to Holidailies 2017.

 

The Audition

Danse Macabre via Flash PromptIt’s not like any instrument I’ve ever seen. Or rather, it is, but it’s as if I’m looking at its reflection in a warped mirror.

“I can’t play that,” I tell our Host.

His gaze feels like how I imagine it must be like when an anvil is dropped on your head. “Are you not a Cellist?”

“I am,” I say. “But that instrument looks more like a bass.” And not a double bass, either, I think. More like a quadrupal  – no – octupal – bass.

“And do you know how to play a bass?”

“In theory. A normal one anyway. I mean the strings are different, tuned in fourths instead of fifths, and G is the high string, but… the physics are the same. But this one… In order to play it, I’d need at least two more hands. Maybe three.”

“That can be arranged,” the Host replies, as blandly as if I’d asked for a glass of water.

A shiver goes through me. When I agreed to sub for my friend Karl on this gig, I had no idea what I was getting into. All I’d been told was to show up at the mansion on Aerie Drive just after dusk, and to wear black.

“It can?” I ask, inwardly pleased that my voice remains steady. (I’d been certain I would squeak.)

“Easily.”

The word lasts three times as long as it should, and then I feel it… my body is changing. My shoulders and rib cage are expanding and suddenly instead of the two arms I was born with, I have six, and when I move them, it’s as if I’ve always had six.

“I don’t know what to say,” I tell the Host.

“Say nothing, Cellist. Just play.”

And suddenly the instrument makes sense, with its eighteen pegs and eighteen strings. I’m playing chords I never knew existed, and my body just knows what to do, where to put my fingers. The music and I are one being, and I feel like I’m flying, like I’m connected to the universe and it’s energizing me with every stroke of the bow, every press of my fingers against the wire and the wood.

When I finish my impromptu audition, my heart is racing and I’m breathing hard, and I can feel sweat on my brow and under all of my arms, but I don’t ask for feedback.

I don’t have to.

I know.

The Host remains silent for a long moment. When I think a moment can’t possibly be stretched any thinner he speaks the word “Brilliant.” The final ‘t’ is almost its own syllable. “Follow me to your room. You’ll do well here.”

I don’t mention that I thought this was a one-night gig, or that I have an apartment waiting for me. Somehow, I know I’ll never be going back to it. I belong here, now.

Here where the music will never stop, and there’s an instrument only I can play.

Undetermined

Unknown Saint via Flash Prompt“Are you ready to leave?” My husband’s hand rests gently on my shoulder as he speaks, and his thumb is cool where it brushes against the skin of my neck.

“Soon.” I know we’re meant to be meeting friends for dinner, that a lengthy visit to this old church was not on our itinerary, but there’s something about this statue that has me transfixed.

“Might I remind you that you answered ‘soon’ ten minutes ago, and fifteen minutes before that?” His tone betrays only the merest hint of impatience.

“I know, but there’s something about her that… I feel like there’s something I’m meant to be seeing, or… comprehending… that I’m not.”

“The informational brochure describes her merely as an unnamed saint.”

“I know,” I tell him. “It’s just that I can’t decide… is she human turning to gold, or gold turning to human?”

My husband, who typically has a response for everything, does not reply.

Star-Crossed?

Naiad Spring via Flash Prompt“Hello, Naiad,” he chuckled. “How’s the water?”

It was the same greeting he offered every morning, as soon as her head broke the surface of the water.

And every morning, she gave the same response, “Jump in. See for yourself.” It might have seemed like a brush-off, save for the warmth in her voice and the flirtatious wink with which she punctuated her reply.

But all he ever did was flash his insouciant smile and turn away from her, walking into the forest until the sound of his hoofbeats was completely overwhelmed by the rushing of the falls.

She, of course, watched him go until the mist and spray coming off the tumbling river obscured his form. And it was a beautiful form. His top half featured a broad chest and muscular arms while the lower part of him sported chestnut hair, firm, strong hindquarters, and fetlocks that were positively swoon-worthy.

Their little ritual was repeated every morning, and the looks that passed between them grew longer, the tones of their voices more intense. Still, they never deviated from their script.

The day his lips found hers almost at the very second she surfaced – before he had straightened his neck and spine from bending to sip from her spring – was the day she knew she had to send him away forever.

“I don’t get it,” her sister shared. “He’s single; you’re single. What’s stopping you from just going for it?”

“You know that saying about if a bird and fish fall in love, where do they live?”

“Yeah, so?”

“How much more difficult must it be for a siren and a centaur?”

Her sister had stared at her for a full minute before throwing a rock past her head. The younger woman’s laughter rippled forth like the concentric rings on the surface of the water.

“What’s funny?”

“You are. I mean, I thought you were supposed to be the smart one.” When she didn’t reply, her sister asked scornfully. “Honestly, where do you think seahorses come from?”

Published Elswhere: Not Exactly Persephone

Not Exactly Persephone

Today I have a story over at Modern Creative Life. An excerpt is below, and you can read the full text of Not Exactly Persephone at this link.

It was her trademark, she said. A beret with a butterfly pin was how the world would know she was herself.

The first time she saw him, it was when she rounded the bend just this side of the creek. He was preternaturally still, focused on the winged creature perched on his fingertips (he had long, graceful fingers, she noticed) and she froze mid-step, afraid to disturb him, or spook the colorful insect he was studying.

But even one small-ish woman’s breathing is enough to change the melody of the forest, and when he glanced up, their eyes met.

It wasn’t a cosmic thing, not really. Just two people acknowledging each other’s presence, and moving along on separate paths.

I’d love it if you visited the link for the full story and told me what you think

Not Exactly Persephone at Modern Creative Life

A Pinch of Stardust

Pinch of Stardust via Flash PromptI’ve always loved playing in the kitchen.

I remember all the times I watched as my grandmother and my mother and all the aunties would bustle around, measuring out ingredients and filling kettles, stoking the fire of the big old coal-burning oven and testing things for doneness.

Sometimes they’d give me some dough to shape. I never twisted it into the classic pretzel-shape everyone expected, though. Instead, I’d outline continents or trace the lines of constellations, then dab on the egg-yolk and sprinkle a bit of cinnamon sugar or salt, as my mood dictated.

I always suspected that they gave me the dough to keep me from seeing what they were really cooking.

But I knew.

Too many things that weren’t food came out of our kitchen.

Aunt Helen, for example, always baked the loveliest quilts, patchworks of strawberry, blueberry, and raspberry with squirts of lemon juice for a punch of color.

Aunt Delia poured galloping horses out of her kettle, and Aunt Patricia blended the most amazing stories – you could taste the voices.

Mom… Mom dabbled in a little of everything, but when she was at her best she’d toss a few ingredients into a hot saute pan, and out would come a complete outfit, inspired by the latest cover of Vogue or Elle or (when she was making something for me) Seventeen.

My grandmother, on the other hand – she had the real talent in the family. She’d layer things into one of the big lasagna pans, singing while she worked, and an hour or so later, she’d pull pots of African violets out of the oven.

She sang to them, too, of course.

But that’s a different kind of magic.

It took me a while to figure out my specialty. At first, I wanted to blend stories like my aunt, but we have different voices and different experiences in the world, so my stories are different than hers.

She blends things from root vegetables and sharp cheeses, red wine, fresh bread, and long walks in misty woods.

My stories… they’re made of other ingredients. Dark chocolate, spicy chili, sometimes a little wasabi, other times a whole, creamy avocado. And I don’t blend. Sometimes I saute, like Mom, and sometimes, I bake, like my grandmother, and often I use the crockpot, because some stories need to be stewed slowly… And I do sing while I’m working, sometimes.

Now, each of us has one, special, secret ingredient that we use when we’re in the kitchen. As with magicians, we don’t reveal what those ingredients are. Or at least, we would never share what others might be using.

But I don’t mind telling you what mine is.

It’s very simple, and incredibly hard to find, both at the same time.

It’s a pinch of stardust.

Gladiolas

Trashed Flowers via Flash PromptHe would bring them home in buckets. Roses, sunflowers, peonies, mums – whatever flowers were pretty and seasonable.

They were metal buckets. Garden pails, really. He would drop them near the door and call out that he was home, and I’d follow the sound to the foyer, running to his solid embrace.

I didn’t mind the roses, and I liked the tulips and irises and sunflowers.

But it was the gladiolas that I loved.

The first time he gave me glads, it was the night before his first deployment, and they were yellow.

“No ribbons, babe,” he insisted. “You’re allowed to be reasonably worried. But no ribbons. No signs. If you must keep a vigil, do it quietly.”

Well, I really wasn’t the ribbon type.

But before he left, I buried myself in his arms and breathed in his scent – fresh flowers, speed stick deodorant, Old Spice aftershave. I memorized that smell.

The next bunch of gladiolas were pink, brought to the hospital the day our daughter was born.

I asked if he would have preferred a son. “Nawp. Girl or boy, it’s much the same. We’ll raise her and love her, and she’ll know about writing and cooking and embroidery from you, and tools and gardening from me, and none of those pink screwdrivers, either. This baby will grow up knowing the difference between Philips and flathead.”

I laughed at that. “Don’t forget Allen wrenches,” I said. “She has to be the queen of flat-pack furniture by the time she heads to college.”

“And so, she will.”

And so, she was.

And the gladiolas kept coming, their tall green stalks and delicate pastel flowers witnessing every holiday and birthday and sometimes just because it was a day that ended in ‘y.’

And then they stopped.

He stopped.

At his funeral, I tore away the lilies and roses, and laid the gladiolas on his coffin. They looked me, our family, our friends, like I was crazy, but I did it anyway. And our daughter understood. She wrapped her arm around me and said, “Yes, Mom. That’s what he would have wanted.”

I couldn’t be around glads for a long after that.

When I turned fifty, a well-meaning friend sent a bouquet that had gladiolas in it. I gave her my brittle smile and thanked her politely. I also stuffed the whole god-damned bunch of flowers into the trash can outside the restaurant as soon as her leased BMW had pulled away from the curb.

A few days later, the bucket appeared near the front door. Metal. Galvanized. Full of yellow glads. I stared at them, convinced they were a mirage, but when they remained after several hours, I brought them all the way inside.

I caught a whiff of speed stick as I moved them through the house.

Being in a relationship with a ghost is a tricky thing. Sometimes, he can be corporeal enough to engage in sexual intimacy, but other times even a simply hug requires more substance than he can offer.

I can hear him speak, but no one else can, though our dog always follows the direction of his out-of-tune singing.

I don’t ask him Why or How or How Long.

He doesn’t push me to remarry.

Our daughter never questions my out-of-the-blue happiness, either. She never suggests I seek therapy, or find a new lover – one who has both presence and a pulse.

She sees the buckets of gladiolas in every possible color.

And she knows.