Counting Down

tree

I’m participating, this year, in three simultaneous daily projects related to the holiday season.

On Twitter, I’m doing #MusicAdvent, which involves sharing a youtube music video every day for the first 25 days of December. Every year there’s a theme, and this year it’s super-easy, just covers. I’ve been participating for years, but for some reason, this is the first time it occurred to me to create my playlist before the first day, which has made my life a lot easier.

On my blog, MissMeliss.com (where you’re reading this) I’m participating in Holidailies, which involves writing every day from December 1st – January 1st. I’m two days behind at the moment, though I will catch up, because what I thought was a severe sinus infection turned out to be pneumonia with a side of pleurisy. I have a z-pack and steroids, but steroids really mess me up – I haven’t been sleeping, I’m edgy, and when I took the pill on Friday, it sent me from zero to acute migraine with no aura in about ten minutes (the weather didn’t help) and then I had to take Imitrex, which basically flattens me. There was no way I was going to write. I didn’t have enough brain.

That leads to my third project this month, which is happening on my podcast – you can find out about that at BathtubMermaid.com  the Dog Days of Advent, which is flexible, in that some people do twenty-four or twenty-five episodes, some people do twelve, some people count down to Christmas, and some people span it. It’s from the same community as the Dog Days of Podcast that I’ve been doing every August for several years now. Earlier in the week, before I knew how sick I was, I’d lost my voice, and another participant offered to read for me, but I didn’t have enough pre-written to get an episode in on Saturday.

My doctor told me that even writing and recording in bed was more than she wanted me to do, but except for chills and a fever than comes and goes, I’ve mostly just been off-kilter, but Saturday was spent rearranging furniture in four rooms of our house, and between the pneumonia, which has left me too winded to exercise, and the physical work, I managed to push my recently-reconstructed knee too hard. It’s hurting in a way it hasn’t since right after surgery, but it feels stable. I suspect today, Sunday, will be spent in extremely sedentary activities like watching Hallmark Christmas movies in bed.

But enough whining.

The cleaning and rearranging, the various December projects, even the medications I’m on, all share a common theme: counting down. The cleaning is part of counting down to my mother’s arrival in about ten days. The pills are me counting down until I feel better. And the projects are counting down to Christmas, which still and always sends me into a mood of childlike delight, and the end of the year.

And in the midst of all of it, I open doors on my advent calendar – a tradition my godmother has been sharing with me for as long as I can remember. We don’t do chocolate or cheese or tea in our calendars. Nor do we have cool treasure boxes of toys and trinkets for each day. Sometimes I wish we did that, but mostly, I like the simplicity of the oversized greeting card with the tiny doors on the front.

Counting down seems to be a human need. We cross off days, check completed items off our to-do lists, and feel the every-present ticking of time.

 

Fair is Fowl

0456 - Cauldron

“Double, double, toil and trouble,” rasped the feathered being behind her.

The Scottish Play? Really?” Agathe replied as she cracked the egg into the cauldron. Its shell fell away in pieces, dissolving into the concoction she was brewing. Then the yolk plopped in. She stirred gently with a wooden spoon, resisting the urge to taste it. Sure, it looked and smelled like egg drop soup, but there were other… ingredients… that were not so benign.

“You turned me into this half-human, half-bird,” the other replied. “You’re stuck with me until you manage to turn me back.”

“I’ve told you,” Agathe reminded her, “it was an accident. You weren’t supposed to sip the tea from that mug. It was supposed to be sprinkled over the hens’ feed to increase their laying capacity.”

“Because you’re too cheap to build a separate enclosure and buy a second rooster.”

Agathe rolled her eyes, ignoring the other’s comment.

“Admit it! You are; you are!” the other said.

“Maybe I wouldn’t have to be so cautious about spending,” Agathe said, accenting her oblique correction, “if someone I know helped bring in some income.”

“Like this? How could I possibly do that?” the other was incensed.

“I don’t know, give folks rides on your back? Go out on street corners and recite ‘The Raven?'” She turned the flame up under the cauldron, and the contents inside began to hiss and roil.

“Fire burn and cauldron bubble,” came the gravelly commentary from behind her.

“Merlin’s shriveled balls! Must you?” Agathe complained. Then she sighed. “Alright, I need the sword now.”

“Mine,” said the other.

“I know it’s yours. We have to dip it into the soup and then you have to lick it.”

“Lick it?”

“Yes. Lick it. Lick it good.”

“You know, this form isn’t so bad. I mean… I don’t mind it, except the egg-laying thing.”

“The egg-laying thing is what’s going to turn you back,” Agathe said. “The sword please?”

Her temporarily feathered friend relinquished the weapon and watched as the witch dipped it into the soup – spell – concoction – thing. “Do I really have to lick it?”

“If you want to be returned to your original form, yes.”

Warily, the feathered one allowed the sword to be drawn gently – oh, so gently – through its beak. “Well? I don’t feel any different.”

“It takes a minute.”

“Oh.”

They waited.

And waited.

And waited.

And finally, there was a puff of grey and white smoke and the feathered hybrid had disappeared, replaced with a woman who looked like a slightly younger version of Agathe.

“I’m back,” she said. “I’m me! I’m back.” She danced around the room, laughing and crying at once. Then she looked at her sister. “I think you should taste the soup.”

“We don’t know what it will do.”

“Turnabout’s fair play,” the younger woman said.

“Alright, fine.” She dipped her wooden spoon into the mixture, then lifted it out and tasted it.

“Well?”

“Needs salt.”

“But… you’re not changing. Why are you not changing?”

“Oh, the soup had nothing to do with it. I just wanted a recipe to win the tasty treats contest. I could have turned you back any time.”

“But… Agathe. I’m your sister!”

“Yeah, but you stole my favorite pointy-toed boots.”

“You turned me into a bird thing for that?!”

“Well, foul is fair and fair’s fowl.”  She giggled. No. She cackled. Get it? Fowl? F-o-w-l.” She cackled some more.

There was a splash as Agathe’s Exotic Hybrid Egg-drop Soup became Agathe’s New Dress.

The other turned to leave, but her Agathe called her back.  “Doris! Come back here. Doris! I’m sorry.”

But the younger woman just called back over her shoulder. “Nevermore.”

 

 

 

 

 

The Briar Wreath

454 - Wreath

It was a delicate task, and one that was crowned with honor, to gather the wreath that would be displayed above the capitol doors.

In seasons past, Master Gavrel had led his party to the greenwood and the pinewood, selecting individual boughs from the trees there, and then he and the other masters and mistresses (who were also called ‘master’ now, but forgave him for using the old ways because he was old) would weave them into the Great Wreath.

But this year, this year, Master Gavrel wanted something different, something organic. So, he went to the winter wood. He knew that others had gone before him, seeking a wreath from the Order of the Brambles, and that most had come back injured and empty handed, while others had not returned at all.

He had prepared though. He had learned the prayers and practiced the ritual bows and walks. He had brought an offering of fresh soil and nutrient-rich mulch, and not one in his company carried an axe or saw.

Gavrel’s party reached the clearing, and he alone moved forward, through the impaled skeletons of those who had made this attempt, and failed, his movements precise, deliberate.

He spoke the words of the prayers and made his offerings of soil and mulch. He made his bow, and walked in a circle around the offerings, then bowed again.

And then he waited.

He was expecting drama. A sudden storm, perhaps, or trees come to life. But none of that happened.

Instead, there was a rustling sound, then a strong shake, and the suspended wreath dropped to the forest floor. He gestured for his companions to step forward and retrieve it, and then he bowed again and backed out of the clearing.

The wreath, wrapped in white lights, was hung above the capitol doors, and while some people complained that it looked like a bunch of dead sticks, most passersby understood that it was meant to represent the stark beauty of winter, and the idea that death is part of the entire cycle of life.

Master Gavrel stood among the crowd on the last night of the winter festival and smiled.

Five Things…

Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

I haven’t used my blog as an actual journal in a few years, mainly because I’ve been writing a monthly column in the e-zine Modern Creative Life for three years and was doing something similar for the e-zine All Things Girl for several years before that. Personal essays and columns aren’t that different, and I haven’t had the need to share deep parts of myself with relative strangers lately.

But I’m sick. I almost wasn’t able to put a podcast episode together for tomorrow. I’m participating in the Dog Days of Advent, and another participant messaged me on Facebook and asked if I had something ready that she could record. The community that has formed from a bunch of podcast nerds (as one of the other participants describes us) who all commit to doing a daily podcast in the month of August and then sign on to do something similar in December is a lovely group of people. Funny, warm, bright, geeky. I’m not always terribly chatty, but there isn’t one of them I don’t appreciate.

And tonight, two of them became my – what was the term we used in the early nineties? – short duration personal saviors.

So, tonight I’m writing a right and proper blog post instead of a piece of flash-fic because it’s late, and I can’t talk (literally) and none of my usual sources for prompts are speaking to me

But the December Reflections prompt for today is “Five things about me…” (okay, it’s actually tomorrows, I’ve been using them as inspiration, not actually participating the way you’re meant to).

And the number five is resonating in my head.

The number five is a frequent number for list-posts and list-memes – five television shows you like, five things about yourself, five people, living or dead, you’d invite to dinner, five notes in the ascending arpeggios we sing in vocal warm-ups… you get the idea.

I think it’s because five isn’t an overwhelming number. Ten can feel like too many, and three is too few, but five is just right. And it’s balanced… in design you always want odd numbers of things. Five stems of irises in a vase, five candles in an arrangement.

Not to mention that humans have five fingers on each hand and five fingers on each toe.

But my other association with “five things” is from improv.  I spent years as part of the Dallas ComedySportz troupe and “Five Things” was one of our featured games. It’s a game where we use mime and gibberish to convey five activities with audience-suggested replacements. So, the activity might be cleaning a toilet, but we’re cleaning it at Elvis’s house and instead of a scrub brush we’re using spaghetti, and instead of toilet bowl cleaner, we’re using gummy bears.

So, what are five things about me. Well today, they’re:

  1. I have a sinus infection that’s settled in my ears and throat, and I can’t talk.
  2. I have very sweet friends who take time from their days to record for me so I don’t miss a day of a project.
  3. There are four dogs in the room with me, and they’re all peacefully asleep, and their breathing is the most comforting sound ever.
  4. I haven’t decorated for Christmas because we’re meant to be moving furniture around on Saturday.
  5. I’m craving salt.

I suppose I was meant to write more permanent things, but really, not much in life is permanent. And I was never much good at following rules.

*This flash-fic inspired by a prompt from December Reflections.
Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

 

My Darling and Clementines

kaitlyn-chow-554372-unsplash

I smell the scent of oranges before I see that my husband is at the table with a bowl of Clementines and a mug of coffee and his iPad. I’m not sure if he’s reading one of the novels I bought him for Christmas, playing a game, or doing a crossword – all are equally possible.

He’s eating the oranges one at a time, methodically peeling and sectioning each one, then slowly savoring each petite section. These tiny, sweet, citrus fruits are his latest addiction, and a welcome replacement for the near-constant stream of gummy candy that came before them.

“Those smell amazing,” I say, by way of a greeting. I have my own iPad with me. “Peel one for me?”

“Sure.”

He made enough coffee for two, so I pour a mug of my own. He takes his with cream and sugar. Like eighty-seven percent of American women, I’m avoiding carbs, so mine is black. I’ve learned to tolerate it that way, but there are times when I long for the creamy taste of a full-fat latte.

Oranges aren’t exactly low-carb, but one cannot live on kale alone. Sometimes, you have to indulge. And the sweet-tart tang of the brightly colored fruit is what I’m choosing as an indulgence right now.

I sit across from my husband. He’s already peeled and sectioned one of the oranges for me, and it’s waiting on a white paper napkin. (I know, I know, we should be using the seven thousand cloth napkins we already possess rather than putting more non-recyclable waste into the world, but somehow, we never do.)

“Thank you,” I say, popping a section – meticulously cleaned of pith (he’s more particular about this than I am) – into my mouth.  “Oh, god. That’s so good.”

My husband lifts his head from his reading and grins at me, his blue eyes full of mischief. “I heard a news story the other night, that studies have shown that men find it really sexy when women eat oranges, let the juice dribble down their chins, and let their partners lick it off.”

“No, please,” I said. “For one thing, you know I hate being sticky.”

“Yeah.”

“For another, you’re usually the one who feeds me fruit. I wouldn’t want to ruin our dynamic.” I bite into another section of orange, and we both laugh when the juice squirts him in the face. “Close enough?” I ask.

“Close enough.”

*This flash-fic inspired by today’s prompt from December Reflections: Orange.
Photo by Kaitlyn Chow on Unsplash

Morning Light

123rf - Morning Coffee

The sand was cold and slightly damp beneath her bare feet, but despite the chill, Annie couldn’t stand the thought of wearing shoes. Not to the beach. Not even on Christmas morning.

Otherwise prepared for the cold weather in a fisherman’s sweater she’d acquired from an old boyfriend and a pair of jeans that had reached the maximum level of softness from repeated washings, she carried her steaming mug of coffee up the slight rise to the best vantage point on the shore.

Behind her, in the house with the bleached pine floors and wraparound porch, she knew her present partner was still sleeping, flanked by their two adolescent Labradors. The three of them would be harmonizing their snores for at least another hour, which gave her this moment of solitude and ritual.

Drinking coffee on the beach at sunrise was something she’d done since she was a teenager, and her mother had dragged her from her bed one winter morning.

That day, they’d worn galoshes because the beach had been covered in snow. Her mother had also brought along a tarp and a wool blanket. “Cold is one thing,” she’d said. “Hypothermia is quite another.”

The older woman had given her a piece of wisdom or a snatch of her own story every year from that Christmas until the one when she’d left the world of the living, and after that there had been no more family holidays. Annie’s father had never been part of the picture and she and her bother had drifted apart, their relationship relegated to one of holiday cards and birthday texts.

Sometimes, Annie wished she’d had a daughter with whom to continue the tradition, but it was a minor regret, one note in the rich song that was her life.

Annie wrapped her hands around the warm mug, letting her fingers meet through the handle. Her new ritual was to send a silent prayer to the universe: for peace, for patience, for wisdom.

She sat there in communion with sea, sand, and sky until the sun had risen completely. Then she drained her mug and rose – more stiffly than she would have liked – to her feet and moved closer to the water’s edge, where the sand was smooth and damp.

Using a fragment of a clam shell, Annie wrote her mother’s name in the sand, and her grandmother’s – the two women who had most influenced her – and traced a heart around them. Below, she wrote “Merry Christmas,” followed by the year.

Then she cast the shell back into the sea, and walked back across the sand, up the stairs, and around to the kitchen door. She left her mug in the sink, and started a fresh pot of coffee, setting the machine to begin brewing in ninety minutes.

Creeping back into the bedroom, she stripped down to a tank top and underwear – she hadn’t bothered with a bra; it wasn’t like anyone else would be on the beach on Christmas morning – nudged one of the dogs out of her way and slipped back into bed.

Later, her partner would wake up and she would feel his whiskers against her chin when he kissed the salt from her lips.

But right then, it was early on Christmas morning, and Annie was exactly where she wanted to be.

Better Angels

0439 - Guns and Angels

The humans called them “angels.”

They were meant to be calming figures, feathery beings who provided whispered advice at crucial moments. Their guidance typically came in the form of gut feelings or sudden inklings – those subconscious reactions that cause a right turn rather than a left or staying home rather than going out.

Hovering over the shoulders of humanity, they nudged gently and gave subtle pushes. Nothing overt. Just keeping things on track. That sort of thing.

But little by little, the human world changed. People divided themselves in arbitrary ways that had little to do with geography or culture and everything to do with anger, bitterness, and fear.

The angels’ voices were no longer heeded; their ethereal suggestions went unfelt.

The choir sang to deaf ears, and their enfolding wings were brushed aside by harsh hands, if they were noticed at all.

Humanity was no longer a noble race, full of wonderous creations – art, music, science, technology – and potential.

Instead, it was in danger of destroying itself, and the world it inhabited.

The choir convened.

Discussions were had, and heated debates, and finally a decision was made. They would have to solve the human crisis in a way the bitter, frightened people would comprehend.

They began to appear in selective places. They let their halos show, but they also displayed their weapons: shining, silver-outlined, mostly transparent versions of the projectile weapons the flesh-and-bloods seemed to treasure.

When merely showing up had no effect, they fired booming warning shots that ricocheted across the skies like thunder – only louder, stronger, and more ominous.

And when the warnings failed, they had no choice.

They eradicated humanity for the greater good.

Afterward, their white and silver forms stained red (time would let it fade, they knew), they reconvened at their undetectable headquarters and sang songs of mourning and remembrance, until they could sing no more.

Finally, so much time had passed that the angels were ready to try another experiment. “There is another world with a crop of humanity,” one said. “Let us try again, with them. Perhaps this time, they’ll thrive. The natives call it ‘Earth.'”

And so, they moved their headquarters across the universe to a blue-and-green world with diverse lifeforms and humans who were still receptive to their influence. But they also made a unilateral decision: they would act sooner, more swiftly, and with more surety.

This time, they would not fail.

This time, they would be better angels.

Not Pandora

0447 - Not PandoraShe’s no Pandora, unable to curb her curiosity and inadvertently setting a mass of horrors loose upon the world. Her boxes aren’t metaphors for the trials and tribulations of daily life.

Rather, they’re the memories of all the people she’s loved and lost. Keepsakes and memorabilia, photographs and old letters are all tucked away in cedar-lined darkness, waiting to be acknowledged, accepted, assimilated.

That box represents her grandmother: pearls and rose petals and half-done knitting projects, the needles still attached. And that other one? That’s her grandfather’s collection of old cameras and model trains, seed packets and artisan bread recipes.

Other boxes are smaller. One holds an assortment of dog collars and old chew toys, and vials of the ashes of lost companions. There’s room, yet, in that one. Another protects the tiny clothing never used by the baby who was never born. Tucked inside, a grief counselor’s business card, and the wristband from her hospital stay. (Keep those boxes closed, she reminds herself as she moves through the attic space, squinting her eyes to ward off unbidden tears.)

Cardboard boxes hold traces of old boyfriends, relationships that were fine in the moment, but flickered out, and friendships left hanging as people grew up, moved on. (She really should call her college roommate. It’s been five years since they last spoke… or is it six?)

She freezes when she sees the newest box, its shiny lid cracked open. That one… that one was added just this past summer, and it never will stay closed. It’s got soil samples and pencil stubs, a book on improving your memory (lost for years, found too late). Printouts of emails and silly cards, a brooch she can’t stand to wear right now – copper and brass safari animals dangling from a central ring – but creeps in to pick up and hold. She pushes the lid down, knowing that she’ll have to close it again all too soon, but every time, it stays shut a while longer.

These boxes don’t hold horrors.

If she’s careful lifting the lids, she can slip a smile out. A friendship bracelet made of knotted fairy floss, a sun hat that still has grains of beach sand embedded in the straw.

She tries so hard to be careful.

But memory is fickle, and grief is tricky, coming back day after month after year after decade, usually when she least expects it, and smiles are still smiles, even when they’re tempered with tears, and missing people means you loved them, doesn’t it?

She’s no Pandora, with one box of horrors to share and one bright spark hidden at the bottom, but like that woman from myth and story, she knows that spark, and treasures it.

She moves out of the room by the same route she entered, eddies of dust swirling in the sunshine that drips in through the skylight.

At the attic door, she turns, and addresses the boxes. “All my hopes.”

Rhoda, Revisited

Rhoda - Flash PromptKilling the rabbit had been way easier than getting rid of that annoying Daigle boy. And no one would care -this time – about the marks her tap-shoes left on the creature’s head.

She’d smile pretty and tell them she did it to save Mrs. Danforth’s vegetable garden.

And they’d believe her, her aunt and uncle would, because they didn’t know the way her mother had. (Mother was no longer a problem. The spanking had been the older woman’s last act in soooo many ways.)

They’d just cuddle her and bundle her off to a hot bath and bring her cookies and milk in bed, and take her clothes to be cleaned.

They wouldn’t notice that there was blood spray. She’d tell them she strangled the poor thing.

And they’d believe her.

They always did.

And all she had to do was smile.

 

 

Marigolds

0324 - CatrinaShe misses them, of course. Her husband, her children, her sisters, her friends.

It’s been so long since she’s kissed her little ones goodnight and breathed in the scent of their youth and innocence: dirt and soap and rosin and chocolate.

Bella, the ballerina, always slept on her back with one leg straight and the other en passé.

Simon was her baseball player, and more than once she’d had to slide his glove off his hand in the middle of the night. That was part of his scent, too: the oiled leather of his catcher’s mitt.

Victor, her husband, had a stronger scent: fresh-mowed grass, pipe tobacco (he never would give up that thing) clean cotton and the musky tang of his sweat mixed with the slightly aquatic aroma of his favorite shampoo/body wash combination product.

How she longed to slip into bed beside him, to rest her head on his chest and let his heartbeat lull her into peaceful sleep. How she missed those early mornings when the kids were still asleep and they came together in the pre-dawn starlight, quietly, but with such intensity, passion, and love.

She would never stop wanting that man.

Her sisters were more distant. Perfume and coffee, red wine and gardenias… that was them. And her friends? More wine, coffee, arrachera tacos and guacamole with fresh cilantro, lime, and salt, and Indio beer.

She remembers their scents almost more than their faces or voices. She’s forgotten many important events, but their love for each other is indelible.

And tonight she will see them all.

She can feel it: the thinning of the veil, the strengthening of the old magic. She can see the shapes of the women and men dressed as Catrinas and roaming around the town square. She can sense the brightness – color and aroma both – of the marigolds, and she follows the pull of the invisible string tugging at her navel.

They are all there, at her ofrenda. There’s a plate of the shrimp mole she loves, and another of chocolate-raspberry torte. Her wedding dress is there, and her collection of fountain pens, and her favorite sun-hat.

She feels wetness on her cheeks and realizes that she’s made the crossing.

Her husband is there, alone for the moment, and she caresses his face, smiling at the texture of the stubble on his chin. He turns, and his smile lights the night. He touches a button on the cd-player (the ancient ‘boom box’ she had in college, when they met) and their song wafts through the tented space.

Beyond the awning and the posts, the masses circulate, carrying Oaxacan hotdogs wrapped in blue corn tortillas, pausing at each ofrenda to comment on the photographs, the drawings, the food.

The children will be back soon, and her sisters, she knows, but for now it is only herself and Victor.

“Dance with me,” he says as the old-style waltz music fills their immediate vicinity. “Can you?”

“Tonight, I can,” she says.

The children, the friends, the relatives, they come and see Victor turning leading her wispy, ethereal form in the dance, and as much as they, too, want to spend time with her, they step away.

When dawn comes, and she must leave, she is frozen by his question. “Will I see you before next year?”

“Plant marigolds,” she tells him. “I’ll come, if you plant marigolds.”

But he won’t remember that instruction once the sun has fully risen, and she won’t really be strong enough to cross over again until the next year’s celebration.

And it is a celebration, this day. It’s a celebration of love and joy and connection, and the knowledge that even death can only pause those things, never eliminate them completely.