But, the Wolf?

But, the Wolf

But, the Wolf

 

They found her, naked, curled into a protective ball – not quite the fetal position – nestled in between the great roots of a giant tree.

“We’re so glad we found you,” they said. They didn’t ask how she’d  come to be there; they simply accepted her return.  “Here, put this on.”

It was her cape, of course, the red one she hadn’t worn since childhood. (And she was quite obviously no longer a child.)  She wanted to shred the thing, but conceding to the cold and their false modesty (for they were looking at her nude form, all of them) she wrapped it around her,  at least enough that her soft, pink parts were hidden from the public eye.

“Were you miserable?” they demanded. “Alone with that creature?”

“No,” she said. “He was quite lovely, really.”

“But he swallowed you. The woodsman saw it.”

“No, he saw what he wanted to see. The wolf protected me from Grandmother’s dark beliefs and black magic.”

“But he had such big teeth, such demonic eyes – surely you were afraid?”

“No,” she said. “He made sure I was warm and dry and well fed. He made sure no danger approached me. My sleep was untroubled.”

She didn’t tell them that the wolf’s fur was softer than any of the mink coats the old women lusted after, winter after winter, but never dared to make or buy. She didn’t tell them that his thick tail would loop around her wrist when she was frightened, or that he would curl himself around her when the nights were freezing, or below.

She certainly didn’t tell him, that he wasn’t really a wolf at all, but a werewolf, in full control of both form and faculties.

And she absolutely didn’t tell them that it was possible she was carrying his child. Or children. Or pups. (Would they be pups? Would it matter if they were?)

She wanted to run back to his  – well, lair wasn’t really the right word. Cave? Home? Den. Yes… den. Den connoted a safe and cozy feeling, and she had been both, and more.

“But the wolf,” she asked, her voice trembling because of her worry for him, “is he unharmed?”

“We couldn’t find him,” one of the hunters said. “It’s like he never existed.”

They took her to her mother’s home, where she found the woman much diminished. Her father had long since disappeared into the forest. Maybe he’d found a she-wolf companion – they said these things ran in families – but more likely, he’d found a bottle, and a river, and a rock, and would never been seen again.

Pity.

She’d have liked to have words with him. About not telling her that his mother was a dark witch who wanted to lock her up til she was thirty. About not telling her that the forest creatures weren’t always dangerous. About not telling her to think first and slash out with her knife second.

She’d cut him. Not her father, but the wolf. She’d drawn his blood while he never drew hers. Well, not with a knife. But she’d been a virgin the first time he’d lain with her, and that kind of bloodstain was better earned.

A week passed, then a fortnight, then a month. On the day after the full moon, he came to her door in human form.

“I love your daughter,” he told her poor, insane mother. “I wish to marry her. She’s carrying my child.”

Her mother approved; the date was set. After the old woman was well asleep, he went to her bedroom.

“I love you,” he gave her the words he’d shared with her parent. “I’ve missed you.”

“But, the wolf?” she asked, her hand curving protectively around her belly.

His eyes flashed amber for a moment, then soft brown replaced them. “Oh, the wolf… he loves you too.”

Image Copyright : Natalia Lukiyanova via 123rf.com

Xenia’s Bedraglon

0930 - Bedraglon

 

“Mama! Come look! There’s a bedraglon on the beach! We have to help it!”

 

“A what?” My child confused me sometimes.

 

“A bedraglon,” she repeated. “You know, when a thing is all mussed and tired and fade-y it’s bedraggled, right?”

 

I couldn’t fault her vocabulary. Since moving to Vios, she’d had little to do but read. She read in the house when I was preparing our meals, or in the back of flitter when I made house calls. And as the only xeno-veterinarian in the colony, I made a lot of house calls.

 

But the girl was still talking.

 

“Well, the animal on the beach is a dragon. And it’s bedraggled, so it’s a bedraglon, and we have to help it.” She looked up at me with her liquid blue-grey eyes, the color precisely the same as that of the stormy skies above us. “You can help it, can’t you, Mama?”

 

Ah, the faith of fools and children! You must never intentionally break either. “Let me get my bag,” I told her. “And I’ll see what I can do.”

 

The little girl half-led, half-pulled me down the beach from our back door, to where the poor creature had collapsed in the surf, and I had to admit, her name for it was sadly accurate.

 

I’d only ever glimpsed these native flyers in the air, and once I saw the evidence one of them left behind on one of Mr. Copnick’s sheep, but I’d never been up-close-and-personal with one, and even as a sodden heap, it was a bit intimidating.

 

“Easy there,” I said to it, speaking as I would to a spooked horse. “I’m here to help.”

 

It seemed to understand that I meant no harm because its dark eyes brightened slightly.

 

I walked around the creature making a visual assessment, and that’s when I realized what had happened: the poor beast had been snared by a fisherfolk’s drift net. Long since banned for ocean use, these nets were used on Vios and other colony worlds to catch aerial prey. Specifically, the fisherfolk here cast them out from trawling shuttles to snare the flying turkeys that had become one of our staple foods. Apparently, even when used in the skies instead of the seas, they still caught other creatures unintentionally.

 

“Xenia, darling, will you do Mama a huge favor and bring the big shears from my bag?”

 

“Okay!” She trotted over with them, carried point-down as I’d told her so many times. “Can I help?”

 

I hesitated. I needed someone to keep the dra – bedraglon – calm, but I wasn’t certain it was safe. I did my own sort of casting out, probing the creature with my vet-sense. There was no return crackle of danger, so I took a chance.

 

“Go sit near its head, sweety. If it lets you touch it – like this -“ and I demonstrated, giving the animal’s side a firm but gentle stroke with my flattened hand “- then pet it, and talk to it. Talk soft and slow, like you do with Spot.”

 

Spot was our dog. Or cat. I hadn’t yet determined if the local domestic was analogous to canine or feline house pets, but we referred to them as Viosian Cloud Leopard Dogs, and almost every family had adopted one.

 

“Okay, Mama.”

 

I gave the bedraglon – I was thinking of it that way, now – a few minutes to settle, and was relieved to see that Xenia had dropped into a cross-legged position and coaxed the great beast’s head into her lap. Then I went to work with my shears.

 

Freeing the first wing was easy enough, but the second was folded backwards and the ribs were straining. I had to find the tension point before I could start snipping and balancing it with one hand while I clipped the strands of the net with the other was a little awkward. But I managed, and even though it felt like hours, it was only a few minutes before the animal was completely free.

 

I sensed the bedraglon’s motion before I saw it move. “Sweety, move back,” I warned, but my daughter was already up on her feet.

 

The animal rocked back and forth a few times, then got to its feet. It snaked its thick neck around to look at me, then blew warm air into my face. I could have lived without the strong scent of masticated fish, but I understood it as a gesture of thanks.

 

“You’re welcome,” I told it.

 

I walked toward the front of its body, running my hands along its side as I did so. Nothing felt wrong, but what did I know? What surprised me was that it wasn’t scaled like a lizard or leathery like bats. Rather it had the coarse hair of a Terran hunting dog. A pointer, maybe.

 

By the time I got to where my daughter was standing, the bedraglon had turned back to look at her. She also received the animal’s breath of gratitude, and her expression of disgust only matched her delighted giggles for pure adorableness.

 

We watched as the creature launched itself into the air, and if its first few wing strokes were a bit wobbly, who could blame it.

 

I expected that would be the end of our first encounter with Bedraglon Xenian, as it was officially named, but about a week later as we were sitting on the sand right below our house, a shadow obscured the twin suns for a moment and then our friend was standing before us.

 

Xenia was racing toward it before I could even get up, but I needn’t have worried. The bedraglon had lowered its head so my daughter could hug its neck, just like she had with our ponies back on Earth.

 

My husband came out to join us then, bringing me a glass of iced mint tea. “What’s going on there?” he asked. “Should I worry?”

 

“Nope,” I told him. “That’s just a girl and her bedraglon. It’s all good.”

 

And it was.

Art by: Rasmus Berggreen – http://conceptartworld.com/artists/rasmus-berggreen/

 

 

Hope and Keep Busy

Orchard House

In the cold gray dawn the sisters lit their lamp and read their chapter with an earnestness never felt before. For now the shadow of a real trouble had come, the little books were full of help and comfort, and as they dressed, they agreed to say goodbye cheerfully and hopefully, and send their mother on her anxious journey unsaddened by tears or complaints from them. Everything seemed very strange when they went down, so dim and still outside, so full of light and bustle within. Breakfast at that early hour seemed odd, and even Hannah’s familiar face looked unnatural as she flew about her kitchen with her nightcap on. The big trunk stood ready in the hall, Mother’s cloak and bonnet lay on the sofa, and Mother herself sat trying to eat, but looking so pale and worn with sleeplessness and anxiety that the girls found it very hard to keep their resolution. Meg’s eyes kept filling in spite of herself, Jo was obliged to hide her face in the kitchen roller more than once, and the little girls wore a grave, troubled expression, as if sorrow was a new experience to them.

Little Women and its sequels have been more than mere fiction to me, but lifelong companions. When I was a gap-toothed seven-year-old my mother and I were reading the first book together at bedtime, a chapter a night, until I became impatient and started reading ahead.

It was the last book we ever read together in that way, although my teens and early twenties would find us going to the library together and fighting over which of us got to read the new releases first. Somehow, “but I’m the one who checked it out,” never holds water with your mother, even when you’re a legal adult.

While a lot of people believe Alcott wrote for kids, that’s not really true. She was a writer in a time when, except for books targeted for very young children, books were just… books. “Young adult” didn’t exist as a category. If it wasn’t a picture book, a piece of fiction was meant for everyone.

And Little Women has universal appeal. Sure, a lot of boys and men are turned off by the title, but once they really start to read it, there’s a realization that even though the four protagonists of Alcott’s most famous work were girls, she really understood boys.

It’s also a book that has come back to me, time and again, albeit with different perspectives. For example, when I was first reading it, the part that hit me the hardest was when Beth dies. But once I’d started dating, and especially once dating became “adult” relationships, the scene where Laurie proposes to Jo and she declines is what really affected me.

More recently, Alcott and Little Women returned to the forefront of my consciousness when, a couple of weeks ago, I caught a Facebook Live presentation from the executive director of Orchard House, once the Alcott family home, and now one of the many literary museums in New England. (If travel has opened up by mid-August, when I turn fifty, the plan is for my mother, my godmother, and I to go there together. My godmother was the “book aunt” for my generation of cousins, and she’s the one who gifted me with the book in the first place.

The presentation I watched was low tech, but heartfelt. Jan Turnquist sat in a chair and spoke about the way the Alcotts – in reality – and the March family – in the novel – faced times of trouble and tribulation. “Hope and keep busy.”

And isn’t that what all of us have been doing – or trying to do – since our various shelter in place orders began? We are crafting more, baking more, sharing our artistic talents more freely, and in more public – if virtual – venues.

We are holding onto the people and things that are dear to us, and rediscovering things like cooking from scratch, the joy of an evening walk, and the beauty of real mail.

Hope and keep busy.

It sounds so simplistic, so basic, so old-fashioned… but even when we have all this amazing technology at our fingers – when we can engage in video chats with virtual backdrops that put is at Hogwarts or on the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise, what we seek, what we have always sought, is human connection, and if that doesn’t embody hope, I don’t know what does.

My husband and I work from home all the time and have done for over a decade. On the surface, our daily life hasn’t changed much. Our dogs are not getting any more or less attention than thy ever have. We were never out of toilet paper, or desperate to find more  (although the lack of it in stores did hasten my decision to sign up for a subscription for delivered bamboo toilet paper) and we haven’t had the time to take on major DIY projects. Sure, we miss things like going out to restaurants or to the movies, and most of the shows in our theatre subscription were canceled, or postponed, but for the most part, we haven’t faced a lot of changes.

But psychologically, the knowledge that we can’t do certain things is still a heavy weight. And concern for our family and friends still affects us, not to mention almost every article in the local or national news. (Here in Texas, a side-effect of shelter-in-place is that with gyms closed, people are taking more walks and hikes at dusk, which means snakebites are on the rise – springtime in Texas is snake season after all. I know, because we have to keep fishing baby rat snakes out of our pool.)

But even we are finding ourselves in need of more distraction. My husband is an introvert, but I’ve had it confirmed in these past few weeks that while I can be reserved in large groups of people I don’t know, I’m really an extrovert. I’m also – for the most part – an only child, which means I’m accustomed to being independent and entertaining myself, which is why I thought I was an introvert until fairly recently.

And even we are finding ourselves a bit on edge. Sure, I’ve been seeing my chiropractor most weeks (it’s allowed because it’s for pain management) and having massages (my massage therapist is in my chiro’s office, and time with her is also for pain management), but our schedules don’t really allow us to hang out on video calls or join virtual games, except on rare occasions.

I’ve also been struggling to write. Partly this is a combination of hormone flux and my migraines being out of control. Partly it’s a reaction to the state of the world. I would not describe myself as depressed, because that’s a very specific chemical and neurological condition, but I’ve definitely had moments where I’ve been unable to find my spark.

So when Orchard House and Jan Turnquist reminded me of how the Alcotts – and the Marches – handled tough times, it resonated with me, the way Little Women has always resonated with me.

Hope and keep busy.

So I must. So must we all.

Nobody talked much, but as the time drew very near and they sat waiting for the carriage, Mrs. March said to the girls, who were all busied about her, one folding her shawl, another smoothing out the strings of her bonnet, a third putting on her overshoes, and a fourth fastening up her traveling bag…

“Children, I leave you to Hannah’s care and Mr. Laurence’s protection. Hannah is faithfulness itself, and our good neighbor will guard you as if you were his own. I have no fears for you, yet I am anxious that you should take this trouble rightly. Don’t grieve and fret when I am gone, or think that you can be idle and comfort yourselves by being idle and trying to forget. Go on with your work as usual, for work is a blessed solace. Hope and keep busy, and whatever happens, remember that you never can be fatherless.” – Little Women, Chapter 16 (“Letters”) by Louisa May Alcott

Bang, Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)

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Bang bang, he shot me down
Bang bang, I hit the ground
Bang bang, that awful sound
Bang bang, my baby shot me down

I’m wrote this, last October, with a brain that was a bit addled, and definitely altered, from opiate painkillers and actual pain. I had a torn meniscus in my right knee – surgery took place a week after I wrote this – and I had a stress fracture in the same foot.

We were supposed to write a didactic dialogue – an unemotional exploration of a serious issue. In my case, I had an idea for a dialogue on gun violence and gun control, and while the piece wasn’t meant to be fiction, I was going to use my recurring android character Basil and his actress partner Zoe to illustrate both sides of the article, because moving things into the future, setting them in a world a bit separate from our own, often makes them easier to process.

And I use horror and science fiction to process.

But then I woke up that October morning to the news that nine people had been shot at a bar in Kansas City while I was sleeping.

At that writing, my country had gone zero days without a mass shooting.

As of today, it’s been 50 days, unless you count a family of five in Milwaukee, but that was inside their house, and I think from a member of the family, so I’m not counting it. And anyway, the only reason it’s been fifty days is because schools are closed and  most people have been on stay-at-home orders.

But I was heartsick then, as I become every time I hear about such an event in the news.

And I was  – am –  incapable of writing a dialogue. Because I can’t see another side. Oh, I know my own nephews have hunting rifles. I know that they are good fathers and responsible young men, and I know they store their ammunition separately from their actual rifles and would never let their children touch either until they were old enough to be trained and responsible themselves.

But they don’t need to hunt to eat.

They do it for sport.

And this nauseates me.

I also know that my brother is a cop, and carries a gun, and that, as far as cops go, he’s one of the good ones. He’s not overtly racist or intentionally misogynistic, and he genuinely believes he’s helping people. (Actually, he has a bit of a hero complex, but a lot of cops do.) Like my nephews, my brother does not treat his gun as a toy, but sometimes he jokes about it. “Oh, don’t worry, I’m strapped,” if we’re in a sketchy neighborhood.

And I don’t find this funny, or reassuring.

Because to me, if a cop has to draw a weapon, they’ve already failed. The situation has already deteriorated.

You’ve already lost.

And if your first reaction to being in a neighborhood that isn’t upper middle class and white is to be glad you have a gun, I think that says something about you, not the neighborhood.

It’s easy  – so easy – to believe that if you haven’t felt a bullet whizzing by your cheek that you haven’t been affected by gun violence. But if you live in America, as I do, you have been affected, whether you admit it or not. You’re affected because every year there’s a ballot measure about open carry, or allowing guns on university campuses, or adding or eliminating restrictions on who can purchase guns or what kind or how.

It’s equally easy to believe that Columbine was the first school shooting in the United States. It wasn’t. I know of a woman who was held hostage in her high school in 1985  – 14 years before the massacre at Columbine – and I was witness to a shooting at my own high school in 1987.

In my case, we were lucky. There were no hostages. There was no lockdown. It was one kid targeted by his girlfriend’s brother. The shooter was a member of a gang called SKB – the South Korean Boys Club, and he didn’t like that his target was dating his sister. So, he pulled his car to the curb outside our school, took aim, and shot Phong Nguyen at 3:15 PM on Thursday, December 17th.  It was the second-to-last day of classes before our winter break, and the day of all the winter concerts (we were a performing arts magnet school).

If you’ve ever seen an episode of the television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, you know that California high schools are not the enclosed, prison-like structures that the rest of American students are stuck in. Rather, we have a few buildings connected by breezeways. At 3:15 on a Thursday, the regular students were heading for their cars or their buses, but the performing arts students were crossing the breezeways for a final class. (In order to meet our academic requirements, and still fit in our arts classes, we had one extra hour of classes every day.)

I was standing not far from Phong when the gun was fired.

A friend of mine from the drama class we were heading to, a friend whose name is absolutely not Julian because I’m only naming the names in the news articles, pushed me to the ground when it happened. When we stood up again, Phong was on the ground, and his blood was on our shoes. Julian  and I were seniors. Phong was not in the magnet program and was a freshman.

Before that day, neither of us even knew his name.

Before that day, we were typical American kids, who sometimes pretended we were holding rifles or pistols when improvising scenes or re-enacting favorite bits from action films.

Before that day, I had no problem playing video games that involved blasting alien ships out of the sky.

And after…

The first change was to the orchestra program… we deleted the “March to the Scaffold” from our set; it would have been in extremely poor taste. Instead, we played the Ode to Joy, offering it as a song of peace and hope.

The second change came with the nightmares. Real gunshots don’t sound like the bang-bangs you hear on television. They’re more of a subtle pop. For weeks firecrackers and backfiring trucks spooked me, and I had nightmares about being shot, or being in the way, or what would have happened if my friend hadn’t pushed me down.

In the years since then, I’ve developed a strong distaste for guns. I do not allow them in my house. I have to state this on invitations, because I live in Texas, where open carry is lauded and almost every native has a pistol in her purse. Even my most rational, liberal, friends cannot explain why they feel the need to carry. They just do.

I feel assaulted, sometimes, walking into stores. Not by the Bubbas with their guns on their hips – mainly because most of the businesses I frequent don’t allow open carry  – but because of things like a display I saw in Target during last fall’s back-to-school shopping period. It was for bullet resistant backpacks for kids, and the price tag on them was about $100.

I was horrified, putting myself in the place of a parent who couldn’t afford that kind of expense: the kind of parent – a single mother or father, maybe – who can barely keep a growing kid in shoes and make sure there’s healthy food on the table. How would I feel if I were that mother, having to choose between a backpack that might keep my kid alive, or putting gas in the car for a week? How would I feel if I were that father, unable to buy it, and finding out my kid was the next victim?

I grew up in a world where our school safety drills included marching out for fire drills and warnings like, “If there’s an earthquake that destroys the stairs, don’t use the stairs.” (I’m not making this up.) My youngest nieces and nephews, and my grand-nieces and nephews, live in a world where they practice hiding in closets and using textbooks as shields and cowering under desks to avoid gunfire.

It’s so easy to think that if you’ve never felt blood spatter your skin, you’ve never been touched by gun violence.

But you’re wrong.

Just by reading this, you have.

And I have.

And I’m sorry, but I can’t find it in me to write a dialogue about it. Not then. Not today. Not ever.

Bang bang, I shot you down
Bang bang, you hit the ground
Bang bang, that awful sound
Bang bang, I used to shoot you down