Reality Writes #5: Perfect

NOTE: This piece is my interpretation of the “translation” assignment from the 2019 “Reality Writes” project from The Literal Challenge. My interpretation was a bit loose.

Bach’s Unaccompanied Cello Suites – the Prelude played by Yo-Yo Ma in the video linked above. Why that piece, when it’s not rock or pop or blues? Because it’s simple, but deceptively so.

Pay attention to it. There’s almost no use of extended positions (that’s when you reach down toward the bridge and play far down on the fingerboard (which is technically playing ‘high’ because the notes are higher)). There are almost no double-stops (that’s chords to you guitarists). The melody isn’t terribly sophisticated.

And yet… it’s the measure of a cellist’s skill, of whether they play with emotion or are simply good ‘technical’ players. It’s a required part of the repertoire for every conservatory audition, in every country in the world. If you can’t manage a credible Prelude, you don’t get past round one.

Jacqueline du Pré played it with every bit of her depression infusing the notes. Ophélie Gaillard plays it with warmth and wisdom and a sort of bemusement that makes it as French as she is, for all Bach was German. Rostropovich, Casals – they each had their own spin as well.

But when Ma plays it, especially in his studio recording, you can hear what’s underneath the music. Listen carefully. You can tell when his fingers meet the ebony of the fingerboard beneath the strings, but you can also detect the faint ring when his fingers leave the strings. Good cellists don’t rely on their thumbs – a practice exercise is to play études without using your thumb at all – but you can hear his thumb contact the saddle of the cello when he does move into extended positions. And you can hear his breath.

If you know the piece, you can discern when Ma’s pitch is a little off (it’s the beauty of live performance – the reality and impact often lie in the flaws), when he doesn’t attack the strings in quite the right way. His cello has a subtle burr note in the lower registers.

Look carefully. When the bow is really raspy you can see traces of rosin fly off it. You can see the muscle control Ma has, in the way an up bow (when you push the bow) has the same volume and strength as the easier down bow (when you pull).

Bach. Unaccompanied. Deceptively simple.

Utterly perfect.

Perfectly flawed.

Perfect.

Photo by DXL on Unsplash

Clock Watcher

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

They call her the Unturnable, because she will not change her mind. Once someone has reached the end of their allotted thread, she whisks in to snip it.

They call her the Inevitable One. The Inflexible.

Rarely do they use her name: Atropos.

Most times, the cut is a gentle one, and she catches her charge as their weight is untethered from the cable holding them to life. Sometimes, she misses the catch, and there is a metaphysical thud as though a weary soul has collapsed to a less-than-ethereal floor.

People fear her, but her calling is a necessary one.

Time and technology have changed how she works, over the years, decades, centuries, and epochs. Her sisters have changed their methods as well.

Clotho was so excited to be able to use a 3-D printer to create lives, rather than merely spinning them. And Lachesis was immediately taken with any number of Rube Goldberg-esque measuring devices involving chutes and troughs and scoops and bins and rolling parts that bounce and glide  – the middle sister always had been a bit of a tinkerer.

And as for Atropos, herself? Somewhat ironically, the Unturnable had become enamored with the turning hands of clocks. A clock for each of her charges, each of her targets, every living soul, with the correct allotment (as proscribed by Lachesis and created by Clotho) pre-programmed into the perfect number of ticks and tocks or bleeps or blinks (some of the clocks were digital).

They didn’t chime hours, these clocks, but showed how a thread would be snipped. The Shears were merely a symbol now – there were so many other Ways in the world.  Look at that one, it’s got lots of time left before the hours wind down to Doesn’t Wake Up, or that one over there, just a few minutes left before it chimes Old Age.

But then there are the more ominous clocks, the ones with darker Ways. Those are the lives that are tortured and broken. Some are sad, some are angry, some have been harmed, some wish to cause harm. Some wish to take other lives with them when they go, some wish only for their own endings.

And Atropos is the Clock Watcher who sees them all.

Tick, tock, it’s half an hour ’til Poison.

Tick, tock, it’s a quarter to Gun.

They call her the Unturnable, but some clocks, she wishes she could turn back.

Wind and Water

0711 - The Wave

He’d been reluctant to bring her to the farm. The prairie was so far from the ocean she loved and confining her to a landlocked life seemed somehow cruel.

The night before they left California, she took him to Half Moon Bay. She stripped off her clothes and while he watched, she stepped into the freezing Pacific.

He was half-convinced she’d be eaten by a shark – a surfer had been attacked just a few days before.

He was worried the undertow would claim her, and their marriage would be over before it had really begun.

But after fifteen minutes she’d come walking back out of the frothy, foamy waves, her skin glowing in the light of the full moon. He’d tried to wrap her in the thick towel they’d brought, but she’d demurred.

“Hold this, please?” she requested, drawing a blue glass bottle from her beach bag.

He did, and she squeezed the saltwater from her dark hair into the waiting vessel.

Then she’d wrapped the towel around them both and pushed him onto the scratchy, wool blanket she’d inherited from her grandfather. “He was a sea captain,” she’d told him once. “He spoke the language of the wind and the waves.”

But in that moment, the only wind was a balmy one blowing across the beach, and the only waves he cared about weren’t the ones crashing a few yards away, but the ones he was riding as she rode him.

* * *

She’d adapted to prairie life more easily than he’d expected. She had a green thumb and her tomatoes won raves at the county fair. So did her strawberry-rhubarb pies. “I never knew,” she told him, “what they meant when they talked about ‘pie plant’ in the Little House books until I came here. To think it was only ever rhubarb!”

At night they’d light citronella candles and sit on the porch and watch the stars wheel around in the sky. Well, she’d watch the stars. He’d watch the wind as it ruffled her hair and her skirts.

The wind was a constant presence on the prairie. He’d warned her about it, told her that in the old days, before electrical hum and technology drowned the sound and provided distractions, people literally went mad from the never-ceasing wind.

But she’d just laughed and teased the nape of his neck. “I like the wind,” she said. “If I close my eyes, it sounds like the ocean.”

* * *

For the most part, their life was happy, but sometimes, he caught her staring at her blue bottle of ocean water, and he knew that a part of her was still in California. He might be her husband, but the ocean was her lover, and always would be.

He asked if she wanted to move back, and she refused.

“This is our home,” she said. “I like it here.”

So, they got a dog, and they added a room for her to write in and a room for him to build model trains in and a room they might, one day, give over to a child.

The day the digital stick blinked PREGNANT, he came home to strawberry-rhubarb pie and homemade black bean chili and cornbread with fresh honey butter, and they went to the soft grass  in the back yard and made love under the stars with the warm wind washing over them, and the stars smiling down.

The day she started cramping and bleeding, the day they knew that room would never be a child’s room, the wind had never been so fierce. He begged and pleaded with her to let him take her to the emergency room, but she’d seen the tiny fetal mass go down the toilet… a lima bean and a splash of blood and said there was nothing emergent about it.

She clutched her blue bottle and wept, and he wrapped himself around her, and wept as well.

* * *

He heard the shatter of glass and went to check on her, expecting that she’d dropped a glass in the middle of the night (she never would turn the lights on when she went to get water). But it wasn’t a glass.

She was standing on the front porch with the door wide open, and the fragments of her blue bottle at her feet.

He heard a rushing sound, but  it wasn’t the wind he was accustomed to.

Rather, it was a wall of water – a giant wave – rushing toward them.

“I would have taken you back to the sea,” he told her.”

“I know,” she said. “But it’s too late. The sea is coming to take me back to it.”

 

Trouble Bass

0705 - Trouble BassFor years, the house had been rumored to be haunted. It was the one that always seemed neglected. It wasn’t tall or imposing – just a post-war bungalow, like half the houses in the neighborhood, but there was something off about it. The grass was always a touch too long, the shingles too shabby, the windows… when you walked by at dusk or after, it was as if there was something watching from behind them.

Kids dared each other to climb the porch steps and knock on the door on Halloween. The light was always on, its bare bulb illuminating the peeling paint of the screen door and the rusty hinge that kept it mostly shut.

But no one ever took the challenge.

Still, if a soul was brave enough to slow their steps of an evening, they’d have heard sounds from within the old house that might have changed their minds. For after dark, there were warm lights behind those watching windows, and if the wind was just right, a person who paid attention could catch the sound of old jazz – acoustic jazz – seeping out from the cracks in the floorboards and the gaps in the siding.

The bassline was always most prominent.

When Sherry and her family moved into the house next door, that bass was the first thing she heard. Her bedroom window overlooked the neighboring back yard, and she could see a covered patio lined with colored Christmas lights, and smell the sweet aroma of pipe tobacco.

Often, she could hear men talking and laughing. She could tell by their voices, their accents, the way they spoke, that they were black, that they were older, that they were from the South, and that they were musicians, but she could never discern specific words. When the laughter stopped, the music would begin.

So many nights, Sherry would lose herself in that music, letting it distract her from the sounds of her parents fighting downstairs, or, later, from the sound of her mother crying in frustration and desperation, after her father had stormed out yet again, or come home drunk and violent, or finally left forever.

Sometimes, Sherry was half convinced her unseen neighbor and his friends played extra-loud on the really bad nights, just for her.

The music went on all through her middle- and high school years. She always meant to go and knock on the door, bring a batch of cookies (everyone liked cookies, right? And she was a decent baker) and thank him (she was certain it was a him) for the music.

But she never did.

One late-autumn weekend, home from college for the traditional doing of the masses of laundry on Mom’s dime, Sherry sensed a change in the old house.

Sure, it had always been a little bit raggedy, but now, the windows felt empty, the grass was too tall, and that night, there was no talking, no laughter… no music.

The next morning, she layered herself in turtlenecks and flannel and climbed the three cement steps to the front porch and knocked.

She wasn’t expecting a response.

She was half-certain her neighbor had died, and since she’d never bothered to meet him, no one would have thought to tell her. Or her mother.

But a rustling sound came from within, and a man with white hair and dark, weathered skin, opened the door.

“I’m your neighbor,” Sherry said. “I’m Sherry.”

“‘Bout time you came,” the old man said. “Played for you for so long… never a peep. I knew you’d come if I stopped. We’ve been expecting you.”

“I’m sorry?” Sherry said.

“Nothin’ to be sorry about. Just follow me.” And he turned and shuffled back into the house.

Inside, it was just as shabby as outside, but it was also somehow warm and cozy. “That’s Pete,” the old man said. “This here’s Milt, Ron, Joe, and Mona.” He introduced her to a circle of older people, all aged, all with skin and hair like his, all holding instruments. “My hands can’t pluck the strings anymore,” he said. “But yours… yours are young. You can learn.”

“But I’m an economics major,” Sherry protested.

“Economics is what you do. Music is what you are. Today you’re a trouble bass player.”

Trouble bass?”

“Yup. Iff’n you play for nice folks in clubs, it’s double bass, but when you play for the people who need to hear it, need it to keep their hearts whole, it’s trouble bass.”

“So, you were playing for me, all these years?”

“As if you didn’t know.”

“I should have come sooner.”

“Nope. You came when you were ready. Like I said, it’s about time. Now, come here.” And he put his instrument, honey-brown and warm from care and love, in front of Sherry, and helped her place her hands. “Good thing you’re a tall girl.”

For Sherry, learning to play the bass was a sort of homecoming. All the music she’d listened to growing up finally had a place to go, and her fingers – fingers that usually clicked pens or absently tapped on paper – finally had a healthy means of expression.

The old man never shared his name. Only his music. Sherry just called him Mr. Bass Man, or, when she was particularly exasperated with him, Trouble.

Eventually, she took her place – his place – in the circle of players, laughing with them and talking. They shared their histories and she shared hers and it was as if cultures were being bridged in between riffs and licks and improvised melodies.

Trouble breathed his last breath a few days after Sherry graduated.

She was surprised to learn that he had a son – a doctor. He came to close up the house, get it ready to sell. In a romance novel, the two of them would have found a connection, fallen in love, and made music together to honor the old man.

But it wasn’t a romance.

She inherited Trouble’s bass.

His friends dispersed after the funeral.

And Sherry?

Sherry formed a pickup jazz ensemble among the accountants and other eggheads she worked with in the big city. Her condo had a covered patio, and she lined it with fairy lights and invited them to come and eat and drink and laugh and play.

They called themselves Numbers Game.

Cut a few albums.

Played gigs in schools.

Sherry got letters from kids who said their music made them feel safe. That they listened to her walking bass lines when they walked home at night and felt like someone was walking with them. That the music helped put their troubles in a safe place.

She knew that at some point some kid would find her, and she’d have to teach them what she knew.

But until then, Sherry plucked her fingers on the strings of the trouble bass, and found peace.

For years, the house had been rumored to be haunted. It was the one that always seemed neglected. It wasn’t tall or imposing – just a post-war bungalow, like half the houses in the neighborhood, but there was something off about it. The grass was always a touch too long, the shingles too shabby, the windows… when you walked by at dusk or after, it was as if there was something watching from behind them.

But if a person paid attention. If a person really listened… they could hear it, coming from the back yard, or maybe from the kitchen on rainy nights… the sound of a walking bass line, thumping its solidity through the darkened streets, guiding them safely home.

The Fungus-Fearers

Benihana-Piccadilly-4

There were three of them, sitting at the end of our table at Benihana, the Fungus-Fearers.

Oh, that isn’t what they called themselves, of course.  It’s what I called them in my head.

In reality, they simply looked at their bowls of mushroom soup and elected their pumps-and-pearls wearing spokeswoman to speak for them, her prissy voice pushed from her pursed lips as if she resented having to speak of such things.

“We neglected to inform you earlier,” she said, her tone haughty, disdainful, “but we  – none of us – do not care – for mushrooms.”

The chef, an affable local man who had engaged the other five of us – my husband and our friend, and a fun couple at the opposite end from the Fungus Fearers – quite easily, immediately became contrite. “I’m so sorry,” he said, as if the fault was his. “Are you allergic? Your meal doesn’t come with any more mushrooms, and neither does hers – ” He gestured to the cardigan-clad younger woman between the one in pearls and her bald, male, companion, obviously their daughter “- but yours does.” He continued, addressing the man, whose body was angled toward his family, and hand was cradled protectively around his glass of chilled Chablis, as if he might not be allowed another.

“No, not allergic. We just… dislike them.”

“Alright then,” the chef replied. “Because if you were allergic, I’d make sure your food was cooked before they touched the grill.”

Dinner proceeded.

The girl, who had insisted she’d ordered tuna, not chicken, then refused to eat the tuna because it was rolled in sesame seeds. (Apparently Fungus Fearers are incapable of reading menus.)

While the rest of us laughed with the chef, and with each other, becoming temporary friends, though we’d never met before and would never meet again, the three at the end remained stiff and aloof.

Why, I wondered throughout our meal, and after, would you come to a place like Benihana where you know you’ll be seated with strangers (they were clearly familiar with the setup) if you don’t like sharing space with strangers?

And how could anyone possibly be so agitated over mushrooms?

Just Desserts

666 - Route 666

They were somewhere in the desert, the one that spanned Nevada and Arizona but changed names, or spellings anyway, at the state line. Mojave, Mohave, either way it was Mo-freaking-hot-as-hell.

Tracy could even see the heat waves rolling up from the ground, making the endless stretch of empty road look more like rolling sea than a black asphalt river bleeding its way across the parched flesh of the empty land.

Sure, there was another car from time to time, but mostly the only thing that punctuated the monotony was the occasional mournful whistle of a cargo train – they were automated, those things – and over a hundred cars longs – and their whistles made Tracy shiver every time.

“Too much a/c?” Steve asked? The outside temperature gauge read 106 but it was 72 in the car.

“No, just the train whistle.”

“You like trains,” Steve reminded her.

“I like passenger trains,” she said. “These cargo things… they’re more like ghost trains. Sometimes I think maybe it’s just one endless train on a loop, never ending or beginning…”

“Drink some water, babe; you’re dehydrated.”

“I’m not!” she insisted, but she reached for her water bottle anyway, and took a healthy swallow. “How’re we doing on gas?” The design of the dashboard meant she couldn’t read that information from the passenger seat.

“We can make to Flagstaff.”

“Oh. Goo – Shit!” A red sports car had come zooming up beside them in the wrong lane, nearly clipping her mirror. “That wasn’t the same car we saw leaving Vegas?”

“I think it was… ”

Tracy reached out and teased the nape of Steve’s neck. “Crazy.”

“I know.”

They kept on driving, stopped at a couple of truck stops for bathroom breaks and gas. And then, just outside Flagstaff, they turned off the interstate, following suggestions to a tourist destination on the old Route 66. “I-40 parallels it along this stretch,” Steve told her, when Tracy questioned the detour. “There’s a ghost town with a burger joint that supposed to be to die for. They keep it open for tourists.”

“What tourists?” Tracy wanted to know.

“I guess there are more than we think.”

Tracy shrugged. “Sounds fun.” They weren’t in a race, after all.  They were headed to a new life in a community of artists and writers in Taos, New Mexico, but their schedule was their own. So why not enjoy a slight diversion?

Unlike the Interstate, the road they turned onto was faded and crumbling at the shoulders. The paint marking the lanes was barely discernible, but ruts in the road marked the divisions as well, or better.

The burger joint – a roadhouse, really – had a rusty highway sign on the top, Tracy froze looking at it after they got out of the car. “Steve. There are three sixes on that sign.”

“What?” he said. “Baby, we really need to get some protein in you.”

When Tracy looked again, the sign was a normal Route 66 sign.

Inside, the place was full of tourist kitsch. Stuffed jackalopes and Route 66 t-shirts were everywhere, and the song – that song – blared from the speakers.

A tired waitress in a polyester uniform greeted them with a dusty smile. “Welcome to the Roadhouse.” She reeled off a list of specials and left them to decide while she went to get drinks. A few minutes later, they were sipping iced tea and waiting for bacon and cheddar burgers.

“You headed somewhere specific?” the waitress asked, when she brought their food.

“Taos,” Tracy said.

“Nice town,” the other woman answered. “You’ll like it there. Best cheese enchiladas ever come from Gloria’s. Don’t miss them.”

“Thanks for the tip,” Tracy said.

The burgers were wonderful. Steve ate his own and half of hers, but that was typical. She ate all of her own fries, though. They had garlic on them. They watched people come and go as they ate – families mostly, and a few couples like themselves – but then he entered.

Tracy could tell he didn’t fit. Didn’t belong. His teeth were too white. His sunglasses were too expensive. His t-shirt had a logo that meant it had cost more than their typical electric bill.

“Can I get service?” he asked loudly. He’d barely been waiting fifteen seconds.

“I can seat you at the counter,” their waitress offered. “If it’s just you.”

“Fine, I guess. Could you wipe the grease off it first, though?”

Tracy couldn’t see his face, but she could practically hear him rolling his eyes.

“Asshole,” Steve muttered under his breath.

“Bet you anything he’s the guy in that red penis-car that keeps almost killing us,” Tracy whispered back.

In an attempt to wait him out, to not be ahead of him on the road, they decide to order pie and coffee. Tracy went for peach – her favorite – Steve was excited that they offered strawberry-rhubarb. “Good choices,” their waitress approved. “You want a la mode? It’s on me.”

“Because we’re going to Taos?” Tracy asked.

“Sure. That.” The waitress gave asshole-customer a furtive glance. “And because I know you don’t want to be on the road with him. I can tell.”

“He’s… we keep running into him. I guess the upside is that he’s the one who’s been caught in every speed trap since Vegas,” Steve said.

“Don’t doubt it.”

“A la mode sounds fantastic,” Tracy smiled. “It’s summer, after all. Thanks.”

“You bet.”

They finish their dessert, by which time the guy with the attitude has disappeared. “Bet you anything he’s from L.A.,” Tracy said, as they paid the check. “Leave the waitress a generous tip.”

“I left twenty-five percent,” Steve said.

“And that’s why I love you.”

“Not for my hot body?”

“Well, that too.”

They paused for a selfie in front of the roadhouse. It was dark by then, but there was so much lighting in the parking lot that it might as well have been noon. There’s a mark on the ground telling people where to stand so they can guarantee the sign is in the picture.

Back in the car, they headed back to the Interstate, only to be halted by flickering red and blue lights. “Sorry folks,” a highway patrol officer says, coming up to their window. “Gotta redirect you. To get back on Eastbound 40 do this…”

Tracy took down the directions with the “Notes” app on her phone. “Can I ask what happened, Officer?”

“Bad accident,” he said. “Speed demon in a red car wrapped himself around the signpost on the ramp.” He took a beat, then added. “These roads… they may seem flat and empty, but they make you cocky. You drive safe, hear?”

“Sure thing, Officer.” It was Steve who answered.

They follow their detour directions which take them to a ridge on the other side of the Interstate. Looking down, they can see the car that was smashed. No surprise, it was their “friend” from the road. The asshole from the  roadhouse.

“Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy,” Steve said.

“Hush, honey. No one deserves that. Not really.” She paused. “We should go.” But their vantage point also let them glimpse the sign from the roadhouse, and Tracy shivered when she saw it. Checking her phone, she confirms what she’d seen before. The sign on the roof. One side was the normal road sign for America’s most famous highway.

The other? It had three sixes.

Get your kicks on route sixty-six.
Get your kicks on route sixty-six.
Get your kicks on route sixty-six.

Uneasy Lies the Head

662 - Uneasy Head

“They whisper,” the Crowned one heard her confession. “They whisper all sorts of things to me, and I’m never which advice to follow.”

“Can you be more specific?”

“Big Nose said I should trip Samuel as he was reaching the top of the stairs. I thought he might tumble and slide. I didn’t expect to hear the cracking sound. Or for his head to turn all the way ’round like that.”

The Crowned One frowned. “Samuel died at the bottom?”

“He was very pale… and so quiet. There wasn’t any blood though. I thought there was always blood when people die.”

“Not always, Georgia. Not always. What other whispers have you heard?”

“Twisted Lip said Nanny was plotting against me and I should switch my teacup with hers.”

“And did you?” the Crowned One was concerned as well as curious. What would the child’s answer be?

“Yes, I did. We’re looking for a new Nanny now. Because that Nanny started foaming at the mouth and then went all twitchy and fell off her chair. She’s not dead though, just really sick.”

“I see. It would seem Twisted Lip’s advice was wise, then.”

“Yes, but… I miss Samuel.”

“I am certain that you do. You and he have always been good friends.”

“Except he said that he would ascend to the throne because he’s a boy even though I’m six weeks older,” the little girl announced. “And Mother said those rules don’t matter anymore, because she sits on the throne now, after all.”

“Yes,” the Crowned one confirmed. “Yes, she does. Have you spoken to your mother about these things, Georgia? Told her what the Advisors are whispering to you?”

“I have,” she told him, nodding her head up and down. “She said it’s the way of things. People always try to eliminate the people who have power so they can have power instead. And sometimes we must act to protect our own interests.”

The Crowned One understood his role in Princess Georgia’s life. As a former head of state and current, well, state head, albeit a disembodied one, he was to offer the child as much wisdom and guidance as he could. He had hoped this could have happened without so much intrigue. He had fervently wished for a lot less murder. But it was the way of the world. The other heads – former guards and statesfolk, all – would whisper to the Heir, their advice to be heeded or not, as the child’s will dictated.

But his counsel was given openly.

At that moment, he wished he could give more than counsel. A friendly hug, perhaps. A pat on the head. But the reality was that this small girl was, at ten, already more ruthless than half a dozen mercenaries. She had to be, if she truly meant to take the throne someday.

All he could hope was that his wisdom would temper her more… expedient… choices.

“Dark Eyes also whispers,” the young princess offered, perhaps to assuage his obvious unease. “Dark Eyes says I must remember to be compassionate, when I can.”

“That is wise advice,” the Crowned One said.

“I’ve tried to heed it. Benjamin and I have been playing together since Samuel left us.”

“Since he died, you mean?”

“Yes, that.”

“It’s good that you’ve reached out to his little brother.”

“Benjamin will never sit on the throne.”

“It is highly unlikely that he will.”

“But… he makes me laugh, and when we are together, I don’t focus so much on the whispers I hear from the Heads.”

“It’s good,” the Crowned One said, “that you can still be a child from time to time. Stay young as long as you can, Georgia.”

“I will try.”

“It is late. You should rest.”

“Yes…”  She released the magic holding him in place, and the Crowned One floated up to the Keeper’s Space. “Goodnight, sir.”

“Goodnight, Georgia.”

The little girl was soon asleep. But the Crowned One was still fretting. She was becoming too hard, too cold… he was concerned. A leader must be able to act swiftly and make tough decisions; it was true, but a leader must also be able to be lenient, to know when kindness was the better path. He would speak with Dark Eyes in the morning. They would push Compassion at her a bit more heavily.

A line from Shakespeare went through his brain, and he chuckled softly. Old Will had really nailed it with that one.

“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”

 

 

 

 

Eternal Companion

656 - Eternal Companion

You’re the same in every city. Every country. Every continent. You have been so ever since Velázquez first used you as the model for one of his gods.

You knew he would.

How could he resist?

Your flowing platinum hair. Your alabaster skin. The faint glow of otherness about you. These things made you compelling to men and women of all walks of life, so why not one of the world’s greatest painters?

But then his vision changed.

Ever the storyteller, Diego chose to tell different stories with his paintings. Instead of capturing encounters between gods and men, he focused on the earthiest of the earthbound. The kind who most people made a point of never seeing: the poor, the ugly, the ill, the malformed.

But you; you were beautiful, and you knew it.

So, you went on a mission to show off your terrible, dangerous beauty.

Killing sprees across every city in Europe. Milan. Paris. London. Madrid. Amsterdam. Rome. Berlin. There was no pattern. You went wherever your bloodlust took you, leaving your crimson stain on the statuary, since you couldn’t leave a tintype or photograph.

And I watched you.

I watched you grow paler and more luminescent as last vestiges of humanity were bitten from the necks of your victims and spit, sizzling, to the ground.

Your humanity, not theirs.

And I began to wonder who the real victim was: those whom you killed; you, who did the killing; or I, who allowed it all to continue.

If I were a stronger person, if my resolve were better fortified, this is the point in which I would inform my readers that I’d left you, or better, that I’d committed the ultimate act of altruism and driven the final stake through your marble-esque chest.

But I am not that strong.

And love can be so weak.

And so, because through it all, my angel, my demon, my eternal companion, I do love you, I offer you my neck, and hope beyond hope that in doing so, some of your madness is abated.

After all, the blood is the life.

 

 

La Petite Mort

Like the Prose: Challenge #30 – Write a cheerful story about death.

Robot head looking front on camera isolated on a black background

“Was it good for you?” Basil asked me when I came back to myself after our first ‘intimate joining,’ as he called it.

I burst out laughing. “Are you really using that line?”

His silver face was guileless. “Is there something inappropriate in the question, Zoe? I wished to ascertain if I pleased you adequately. I know of no better way than to simply… ask.”

I rolled over in his bed and propped my head on my hand. “Aren’t you supposed to be the galaxy’s greatest observer? Couldn’t you tell from the way I was practically unconscious?”

“I was aware you had… become somewhat absent… but inducing a physical response is not the be-all and end-all of sex, Zoe, even for a synthetic lifeform like myself.” His tone softened. “I wish to know if you were  – are – emotionally satisfied as well.”

“Oh, Basil…” He really was so caring. “Yes… and… no.”

“I am confused.”

“Yes, I was in the moment. For a first time… it wasn’t terribly awkward, we fit together rather well, I think?” I paused to let him respond.

“I concur.”

“Good, and you read my responses really well. And… god, you already know I love you.”

“I love you, also, Zoe, but I am not a god, only Basil.”

I grinned; this was his default response to my colloquial invocation of a deity, and it never failed to amuse me.

“Okay, good.”

“But why did you also say ‘no?'”

“Because, Basil, darling, we – you and me, as a couple – as lovers  – we’re just beginning. And complete emotional satisfaction would imply there’s nowhere else to go, nothing left to experience, and that’s not true, because we’re constantly growing and changing. Even artificial lifeforms like you.”

“That is true.”

“You know, some people refer to that blissed-out, semi-conscious, post-orgasmic state as la petite mort. The little death.”

“I am aware, Zoe. And you are no doubt aware that the term is not limited to post-coital bliss, but also refers to the sense of satisfaction on might feel when connecting to a great work of art or completing a piece of literature or connecting with a scientific theorem.”

“Basil…”

“You were not finished with your thought.”

“Not exactly, no.”

“Please continue.”

“I only meant to say that I observed your circuits getting a little frizzled there after you came.”

“‘Frizzled?'”

“Your auditory processors weren’t working correctly, and you were blinking a lot.”

“Ah. Perhaps it would be sufficient for me to simply say that… it was good for me, too.”

Carob and Peppermint

Like the Prose: Challenge #29 – Revisit one of your previous challenge pieces and rewrite it from a different POV. (I chose Carob Drops.)

wrinkleintime

“I will check on her,” I say, “Stay by the fire. Enjoy your wine.” I leave my wife on the couch and move into the kitchen. Calling up the stairs, I assure our young houseguest, “Sophie, it is just a power outage from the storm. You are safe.”

A tremulous voice responds, “Okay.”

I’ve already got the kettle on – fortunately our stove is a gas one – and a mug ready with a bag of fragrant peppermint tea. Peppermint was my favorite, as a boy, and I suspect the child in our loft will appreciate it also. If you stir in just the right amount of turbinado sugar or organic honey it is as if you are drinking a candy-cane.

The kettle whistles. I pour the water over the bag, agitate it with a spoon, and gather the rest of my supplies: a storm lantern, a battered paperback novel, a zip-lock bag of tiny brown candies. Separately these things seem ordinary. Together, they are an arsenal meant to battle a small girl’s fear of (I chuckle to myself as the clichéd phrase comes to mind unbidden) a dark and stormy night.

The tea is ready. I remove the bag after pressing out the water, and decide honey is better than sugar on this night, though I’m generous with the sticky sweetener. In doing so, I become the little girl’s co-conspirator, and perhaps, one day, a friend, rather than the strange brown man who married her mother’s college roommate.

I light the lantern, and place it, and everything else on a bed tray – the kind the with the fold-down legs. So armed, I leave the candle-lit glow of the kitchen and climb the stairs to the loft where our bedrooms are. Sophie is in the smallest one. It’s not more than a nook, really: a small space for a small child. Perhaps, one day, the child will be his child. (I spend a moment imagining a daughter with Emily’s bright blue eyes set into tawny skin slightly lighter than my own, but with my jet-black hair. Or a son, with my dark eyes, but his mother’s soft features. It doesn’t matter… but I hope… oh, I hope….)

“Sophie?” I balance the tray on one arm and knock on the open door. “May I enter?”

“Hi, Rajesh.” Her dark eyes seem huge in the flickering lantern light. They’re not as dark as mine, and yet, I feel a kinship with this child. “Is Mom okay?”

“She is fine. She called earlier. Her conference is going well, and she said to tell you she loves you and to be good. Your Aunt Emily is so cozy on the couch that when you called out, I asked her if she would let me come keep you company for a few moments. Do you mind?”

She shakes her head, and I see her golden braids bob back and forth. “No. I don’t mind. What’s on the tray?”

“Supplies,” I say, making my voice mysterious. “The storm is loud, but you know it cannot get in, yes?”

“Yes,” she agrees. “I know.”

“Still, it makes it difficult to sleep. When I cannot sleep, I like to read, and your mother has mentioned that you, too, like stories, so I have brought you one of my favorites.” I place the lantern on the desk near the bed while I talk to her, just far enough away so that an errant hand cannot knock it over, and then I show her the cover of the book. “A Wrinkle in Time,” I intone. “Have you read it? It’s about a very brave girl, a little older than you are.”

“Is there magic in it?”

“Not precisely. There’s science in it. And sometimes science can seem like magic. Would you like to try it?”

But she’s already taken it from me and is reading the blurb on the back. “I think I’ll like it.”

“I think so, too. I first read it when I was nine.”

“I’m only eight.”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“Oh. Okay.” She sniffs the air. “I smell peppermint.”

“Ah, yes. More supplies.” I take the mug of tea from the tray. “Peppermint tea with honey in it. It’s still quite hot, so sip it carefully.”

“I will.”

“And one more thing.” I dangle the bag of candies in front of her.

“Chocolate?”

“Not quite.”

“Then what?”

“Carob drops.”

“What’s carob?”

I smile at her. “It’s a sort of bean from my country. It comes from a kind of evergreen tree, but not the kind we have here. It tastes a lot like chocolate, but it has its own flavor, too. Try one?”

Her small hand reaches into the bag and pulls out a carob drop. She pops it into her mouth, and I watch as her face first grows serious – she is analyzing the flavor – and then lights up: she approves!

“It’s a little… earthier? Is that the word?” I nod and she continues. “It’s a little earthier than chocolate. And there’s something else in the flavor. But I like it. Thank you, Rajesh.”

“You are welcome, Sophie. Now, cuddle up with your book and your tea, and let the storm become a friend instead of a foe. When you’re ready to sleep again, the carob drops will bring sweet dreams, and in the morning your mother will be back.”

She nods at all of that, her eyes wide like saucers and her face so serious. But before I can leave, she puts her hand on my arm. “Rajesh, wait.”

“Is something wrong, Sophie.”

“No. Only… Emily is Aunt Emily.”

“Yes.”

“So, aren’t you Uncle Rajesh?”

“If you wish it, Sophie.”

“I do, please.” And she stretches up and presses her little-girl lips to my cheek.

One day, I think, my own child will give me goodnight kisses like this. Sticky with honey or carob. And I will do to my child what I do with Sophie: I reach out and tug gently on her nearest braid. “You are very welcome, Sophie.”

And I leave her there, wrapped in quilts, in the tiny loft bedroom that is her nest for the night. The little girl with book and peppermint tea.

And carob drops.

* * *

Dark-eyed little girl
Golden braids, serious face
May I be your friend?