A Capella Podcast Blues

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There’s a song that’s been haunting me since just after Thanksgiving. It’s a lullaby that some people think is a Christmas song. It’s not; it’s really just a lullaby. But when songs get stuck in my head, what that usually means they’re sparking a story.

I know that doesn’t seem like a problem, but it became when I realized two things:

1) The story I’m working on will have to be part of my podcast this month.

2) Since I can’t find a podsafe version of the song, I have to record it myself.

Well, okay. I can sing. I’ve been singing since before I could walk – literally. I can also play the cello, koto, dulcimer, autoharp, and musical saw, but I sold my cello a year ago when I realized my carpal tunnel had gotten too bad to play it, and I don’t own any of the others. (Well, we own a saw, but not in my key.)

What I cannot do – could never do – is play the piano.

It’s not for lack of interest.

It’s for lack of ownership. To play the piano without a piano, is kind of a trick.

So, I’m trying to learn this song well enough to do a decent job of singing bits of it as punctuation to this story I’m writing, but there’s this weird key-change in the middle and I can’t find a version to sing with (for practice) that’s in a key where I’m comfortable. (The perils of being a lyric mezzo / belter, and not a true alto or true soprano.)

My frustration led to the following exchange with my husband about an hour ago:

Me: Fuzzy, if you hear singing, ignore it. I need to be comfy with this song so I can use it on pod.

Him: I don’t hear a thing.

Me: Keep it that way. (beat) I really need this about a third lower.

Him: You can’t find it in a key you like?

Me: No. I want a holographic accompanist for Christmas.

Him: I’ll get right on that.

And this doesn’t even take into account that I don’t really have my full voice back after two weeks of sinusitis, pneumonia, and pleurisy (but at least I’m done with the medications).
And on that note (pun absolutely intended) I’m going to make a hot toddy and take myself to bed, so I can sing another day.

 

 

The Second Noel

48799861 - a bethlehem illuminated by the christmas star of christ

Christmas, long ago.  

We all know the story: a young husband and his heavily pregnant wife seek a safe place where she can birth their child. With no room at the inn, they find shelter in a stable and lay their new babe in a manger. There are shepherds and wise men and a star to follow. There are gifts of silver and gold, frankincense and myrrh. There is a promised savior, a symbol of hope and love and all that is holy.

It’s the first noel. The first Christmas. But it’s far from the last.

Christmas, now.  

Over time, that old story, the one with the babe in the straw and the star in the sky, has been turned into a song or several. We sing their tale and celebrate its anniversary with symbols incorporated from other traditions. We try our best to remember that message of peace and love and hope and add in a sprinkling of patience, a dash of wisdom, and the occasional burst of innocent delight.

But at the same time, we’ve commercialized that chronicle. Merchandised it. This second noel  – really the two-thousand-and-somethingth noel – finds us juxtaposing stuffed stockings and decorations on sale since Halloween (a different old story, that) with the pressure to buy the perfect gift, make the perfect dinner, be the picture perfect family.

And yet, as humans we are imperfect. Our families are created, cracked, recombined. We have half-these and step-those, inlaws by marriage and relatives-by-choice,  and some of them mix well and others repel each other like the matching poles of the strongest magnets.

But the star still shines in all our hearts, even though we may interpret it differently.

Christmas, far in the future.

The third noel is the once-and-future noel. It sees the star – that star – leading us to new worlds. We plant new communities, feed and water them, and hope that they bloom. We sing the old songs of a far-away place and time and realize that we have used our technology to repeat the journey. We are now that husband, that wife, looking for shelter in unwelcoming places, and making the best we can of what we find.

The children born in the age of the third noel, may not be the saviors of the expanded universe, but they still hold promise and potential.

For the star continues to lead us.

And each night a child is born is a holy night.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

Trickster

The FoxIn Spanish, he is Zorro, not the swordsman, but they share a name. In French, of course, he goes by Renard. In Italian, they call him Volpe.

In English, he is known as the Fox

But the ancient Greeks knew two things: first, he isn’t male. At least, not always. And second, whether fox or vixen, the Fox cannot be trusted.

Like the animal who bears the same name, the Fox is sly. Breaking into your house to steal anything shiny is just as likely as slipping into your chicken coop and having a nice, moonlit dinner. If caught, you’ll hear a tale so circuitous that the ending will loop around before the beginning has actually begun, but you’ll be so entranced in the telling of it, that you won’t care about the plot-holes and inconsistencies.

Far worse than stealing your material goods or livestock, though is when the Fox steals your heart.

In his masculine form, he’ll whisper sweet-nothings in your ear, but he’ll lace them with sin and magic, and make you crave his touch, beg for it, even, and then disappear after you’ve given up your love.

As a vixen, she’ll sing and purr and dance around you in ever tightening circles, hypnotizing you with movement and possibility, but her dance is a solo one, and any time you reach for her, you’ll stumble to the ground, clutching at empty air.

One day, he’ll be your best buddy; the next, he’ll steal your car, and your partner, too.

One day, she’ll be your best friend; the next she’ll swoop in and scoop your story, or close your business deal, or take all the credit for your ideas.

And either way, you won’t complain.

You might even help them do it.

Because the Fox is the ultimate trickster. Changing personalities is as easy as changing underwear and takes half the time. Wooing a woman one night, a man the next, and both on day three is just par for the course.

The Greeks said the capital-F Fox could never be caught.

But maybe, just maybe, if it’s a full moon, and Halloween, and you have the right combination of wine and chocolate, magic and sin, lust and laughter – for the Fox is a party animal, and a good time is essential – you might be able to clutch a tip of tail for a while.

You might be able to trick the trickster.

You won’t steal the Fox’s power.

But you might win their heart.

And a trickster who loves you? Truly loves you? There’s nothing that can beat it

The Camels of Mars

0398 - Camels of Mars

Their craft had finally set down on the ground that didn’t look all that different from any desert back home.

“Isn’t it supposed to be red?” Benjy asked glancing from the scenery outside to his father, who was also staring through the viewport.

Fahrid O’Reilly sympathized with his son. He’d wanted Mars to seem different, too. “That’s just because of the dust in the air when we look at Mars from Earth,” he explained. “Are you disappointed?”

“Who’s gonna believe we really came here if the dirt I send home is just… dirt?”

“Benjy, we’ve been through this before. You can’t send soil back to Earth. But you can send a photo of yourself at Curiosity Memorial.”

The ten-year-old was not impressed. “Anyone can photoshop that.”

“Well, we’ll have to figure out something else to prove to your friends where your new home is.” He was about to remind the boy that his mother had arrived on the previous lander, three months before, and that he’d get to be reunited with her shortly, but one of the officers – Morris – came to join them.

“The umbilical into the Habitrail will be attached any second now,” he said, gesturing to the series of interconnected domes and tunnels that provided a livable environment on the Red Planet. “Everyone’s anxious to get to their quarters and decompress from the trip, but we think it’d be best if you took the animals out first. Get them settled in their enclosure.”

Fahrid nodded, “A wise choice, Commander Morris. I’ve been checking on them and they seem to be alright, but large animals shouldn’t be cooped up for so long.”

“Do you mind if I ask… what made you pitch the idea of bringing them?”

“I was going through my father’s things after he died, an I found a picture of him with a camel, and a book about the Texas Camel Corps.”

“Is that a real thing?” Morris asked.

“Oh, very real. In the early twentieth century a rancher in Texas who’d been the camel caretaker at a zoo decided that camels would be fantastic herd animals.”

“O’Reilly, don’t you dare tell me they raised camels for food?”

“No… no they didn’t. They used them as pack animals and for transportation in the Chihuahuan Desert – there are places where it isn’t practical to use road transports, and it’s too dusty for flitters. He started doing tours for tourists, but eventually he was training camels to be used as riding beasts for ranchers throughout the southwest.”

“Wow, I had no idea.”

“Most people don’t. Anyway, I did some research, found out that he’d been experimenting with genetic mods, and his descendants had continued his work. Not only can our camels store liquid water, instead of just fat, they can actually create water out of what they eat and breathe.”

“They’re not dangerous, are they?” Morris asked.

“Benjy,” Fahrid said to his son, “why don’t you take this one?”

The ten-year-old uncurled his fingers from the rim of the viewport and pushed himself away from the bulkhead. Standing up straight, and speaking in rapid, but well-rehearsed sentences, he shared, “It’s a myth that camels are mean. Llamas have been known to spit at humans, and camels can do that too, but for the most part they’re docile creatures. Some people even describe them as giant hay-eating puppies.” He paused and grinned up at both men. “Lucy’s my favorite. She likes to give kisses.”

Morris seemed like he was about to ask a question, but there was a jolt followed by a hiss. “Sounds like the umbilical is linked. Can you two manage, or could you use a hand?”

“The more help we have, the faster we finish,” Fahrid said. He turned and led the officer down to the part of the hold where the livestock had been quartered on their long journey. “Coming, Benjy?”

“I wanna get Sophie first,” the boy said.  Part family pet, part herding animal, Sophie was their border collie.  “We’ll meet you there.”

“Okay, but don’t dawdle.”

“I won’t.”

It took the men, the boy, and the dog about an hour to offload the seven camels and five goats, and usher them into the umbilical tunnel that led into the main dome of Opportunity Village, where much of the extant community was waiting to greet the new arrivals, whether they had four feet, or only two.

From the center dome, there was another tunnel that led to a series of gates and beyond them to another dome, this one carved among pillars of stone that were part of the natural landscape. It had shaded stalls, water troughs, and pens full of hay. An older woman, dressed in a coverall, was waiting with a pitchfork, and several people using tablets to control camera drones were also gathered.

“Mr. O’Reilly! Welcome!” She greeted Fahrid first. “Benjy, it’s good to see you. And Commander Morris, welcome back. You staying, this time?”

“Looks like it,” the officer said. “Especially since Specialist Weaver finally agreed to marry me.”

“Did he! That’s wonderful. You two will have to join George and me for dinner soon.” But she turned back to the O’Reillys. “I’m Anna Meier, the governor. I’m so excited to have you and your charges with us. Join me, now, as we pitch the first hay into the feeding bins… folks back on Earth are dying for a photo op.” More softly, she added, “Penelope is waiting for you in quarters… she asked for a private reunion.”

“Penny’s always been camera shy,” Fahrid observed. He reached out to ruffle his son’s hair. “Okay Benjy, line’em up.”

And they cajoled the animals into a loose semicircle around the feeding bins and let Governor Meier toss the first loads of hay to each beast.

“I’m so excited. I know the dome won’t be their favorite place, but with rebreathers, we’ll be able to use your animals to explore the surface and hopefully find more access to the underground sea.”

Benjy and Sophie wandered away while the adults were talking, heading directly toward Lucy. The camel blinked at the boy and the dog, and then slurped the former. Benjy heard the whirr-click of the drone camera capturing his picture.

“Hey, kid!” A blonde reporter with a friendly grin called out. “Mind looking this way?” Benjy turned and flashed her a smile that was a dimpled echo of his father’s. “Awesome,” the reporter said. “That’s the money shot.”

And it was.

All the papers and news feeds on Earth, Luna, and Mars had the image of boy, dog, and camel, with the great stone pillars behind them, as their lead story. The caption? The Camels of Mars.

 

 

 

Duet for Two Young Superheroes

0395 - Halloween Carols

“Dashing through the streets,
Meeting goblins as we go,
Wearing contour sheets,
Wishing it would snow.”

Ethan marched down the street, singing the hood piece of his Amazing Spider-man costume dangling behind him like a cape. Well, more like a deflated balloon. He couldn’t help it though. The costume was a little bit too big for him, and when he wore the mask he couldn’t see properly.

Besides, it was hot for October. Nearly ninety degrees. He would melt into a puddle of red and blue goo if he had the hood on.

He launched into the chorus of the song, his favorite of the Halloween carols they’d been learning at school all week.

“Trick or treat, trick or treat, trick or treat we say!
Try to get the treats before the ghost takes us aw–”
Ethan trailed off, realizing he was singing alone.

“Zach, why aren’t you singing?”

“I’m Batman!” his friend answered, trying (and failing) to make his young voice sound deep and husky. “Batman doesn’t sing.”

“You wish you were Batman,” Ethan retorted. “I don’t wanna sing alone. You have to sing with me.”

“Halloween carols are lame,” Zach complained.

“You’re only saying that because people kept singing the other version of the song to you.”

“Don’t remind me,” the boy in the Batman costume groaned. This had been the day they’d all worn their Halloween costumes to school, and he’d been constantly assaulted with eight-to-ten-year-old boys – and some of the girls – singing at him: Jingle Bells, Batman smells, Robin laid an egg…. It had been funny the first time; now it made him want to puke. “Why’s it so important that we sing anyway?”

“Because,” Ethan said, his bravado and cheer fading somewhat, “we’re turning onto Willow Street when we get to the corner, and that means we have to pass that old white house, and Rebecca says it’s haunted.”

“You mean the house with the tower-thingy?” Zach hadn’t learned the word ‘turret’ yet. “It looks haunted. Like, when I’m riding my bike, I always cross the street so I’m on the other sidewalk.”

“Yeah, me, too.”

“So, if we’re singing, won’t that make it easier for the ghosts and monsters to find us?”

“No, it’s like that movie. The with the widow and the bald king and the kid who played Draco Malfoy, except this was before he was Draco?” Ethan lived with his mother and older sister, who were both into musicals. He kinda liked them too, but he didn’t really tell people that. “In the movie, if you whistle something happy when you’re scared, you stop being scared.”

“So, if we sing while we walk past the Ghost House, we won’t be afraid of ghosts?”

“Either that or the noise of happy singing will make them afraid of us.” They’d reached the corner, by then, and Ethan stopped walking. “So… will you sing with me?”

“I’m a singing Batman,” Zach answered, in the same voice he’d used before.

Ethan didn’t twit him though. Instead, he launched into the chorus, grinning as his best friend joined in.

“Trick or treat, trick or treat, trick or treat we say!
Try to get the treats before the ghost takes us away! Hey!
Trick or treat, trick or treat, trick or treat we say!
If you don’t have treats for us we’ll never go away!”