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The Game

6 Jan

Another one of the entries I wrote for the Library of Virginia’s “The Dark Side” contest, a challenge to capture a moment in 1,000 words or less.  This one was inspired by a photograph of a storefront window in downtown Norfolk, 1915.

Harry C. Mann (1866–1926)
Schreier & Son Window Display, Norfolk, Virginia, 1915

“Oh,” said Dorothy, the small slope of her nose inches away from the shop window. “Oh. That’s my new favorite. Look at the lace along the edges of the bodice.” The perfect, pink circle of her lips fell open. “How much do you think it costs, Martha?”

“Every dress becomes your new favorite.” Martha kept one hand on the small of Dorothy’s back as if protecting her, or maybe holding her back. “And what does it matter? You already have five dresses for every occasion I could think of.”

“Play along, won’t you?” Dorothy caught Martha’s thin fingers in her own. Even at the end of the day, when the sun had set and department stores lining Main Street were flicking on their new and brilliant displays of electric lighting, she still reminded Martha of a sunbeam. “You’re smiling. You don’t mean it after all.”

“Of course not. I’ll play, if that’s what you want.”

Dorothy slipped her elbow into the crook of Martha’s arm. “Oh, good. What do you think of that one, then? The one with the empire waist and the cream silk bustle…”

They wandered down another block this way, Martha riveted by the dove-like cooing of Dorothy’s voice. She imagined what others would think, seeing them: two women in shirtwaists with fashionably tight sleeves, masses of neat curls piled at the nape of the neck. They could have been cousins – Dorothy the younger one, Martha a little older, taller, and plainer – out for an evening walk before supper. Thomas, Martha and her husband’s chauffeur, had parked by the edge of the street in their Model T. The car was still new enough that strangers eyed it with envy, but old enough that her husband didn’t fuss over it as if caring for a baby.  Thomas eyed them protectively every few minutes from beneath the gleaming black hood, then returned his attention to his cigarette.

“Did Edward come to see you today?” Martha asked suddenly.

Dorothy’s smile spread across her face slowly, like ripples in a lake. “Are you jealous?”

“Of course I’m not, I-”

“Well, he did.” Dorothy sighed. “Mother thinks I should marry him and have done with things.”

“And what do you think?”

She pursed her lips at a Thalhimer’s display across the street. “I think I don’t understand how you did it. Married John, I mean. Had William.”

Martha fussed at a few dark ringlets of Dorothy’s hair that had fallen loose. “It’s not  so bad. There’s much worse out there than John. And William was – is – a gift.”

“Oh, he’s darling. I just can’t imagine…marriage.” Dorothy broke away from her grasp then, pressing herself against the window of Schreier and Son. “Look. The one with the roses at the bust. That’s my favorite. Promise I won’t change my mind.”

“You’d look lovely in it,” Martha agreed. She stared at the way the electric lights brought out the russet streaks in Dorothy’s hair, her breath in her throat. “Should I buy it for you?” she said, feeling like a glass someone had filled until it overflowed. “Tomorrow, when they open?”

“Yes,” answered Dorothy. She stared at the mannequin’s shadowed eyelids, her posed arms. Something had lit up her eyes. “Can I ask you something else, Martha?”

Martha felt herself flushing. “Anything, of course.”

“Let’s imagine going somewhere else.  Away from here.”

“What?” She glanced back down the street. Thomas was still waiting for them, his head in his hands.

“We could go to California. Or Paris. Or Argentina, even. Somewhere for people who -”

“But you’d have to give up all your pretty clothes,” said Martha, desperation coloring her tone. Her voice sounded rusty and old.

“Play along, Martha.”

“I’m too tired.”

Dorothy put her hand to Martha’s face. “I’m nineteen.  You know what they say about girls who don’t get married, right?  Do you want me to be a spinster?”

She felt her body begin to warm. “I have William. And John.”

“John would remarry,” said Dorothy, careless.

“What would William think if he discovered that his mother had-”

“Shhh,” said Dorothy, gliding her fingers down Martha’s throat, playing at the sensible fabric of her sleeve before slipping her arm back into Martha’s. “We’ll walk some more, and think about it, and talk about it again when you take me to buy that dress tomorrow.”

Martha opened her mouth to speak, then exhaled the words into the cooling night air. They did not talk for several minutes. The heels of their shoes against the pavement now seemed loud and mechanically regular, like the clicking of typewriter keys. Eventually the thrumming of an engine crept up behind them, drowning even that noise.

“Miss Hartley?” It was Thomas, beside them in the Model T. He mopped his face with an oil-spotted rag, sweating even though it was October. His eyes flickered between the two of them. “It’s almost eight o’clock. Mister Hartley will be wondering where we’ve gotten off to.  ”

“Of course,” said Dorothy, and flung her arms around Martha like a little girl. It amazed her, sometimes, how Dorothy could change her whole character like robes to be slipped on and off. “Oh, what a grand walk! Drop me off on the way back to Martha’s, Thomas?  My mother will be waiting to serve supper.”

“Of course, Miss Wilson,” he said, shifting his weight back and forth. They climbed into the car, their noses filled with the stark scent of motor oil. Wilson put his hand on the gear and they began to glide down Main Street. The night was filled with the shock of the brightly lit windows. Martha turned her head to glance back at the dress with rosebuds in the window of Schreier and Son, but it was already a blur. She let her eyes close. Her fingers found the patch of seat next to Dorothy and rested on it, soft as the gray light of the morning that hadn’t yet come.

Hope you enjoyed!  I tried to include a few details about the time period while keeping the focus of the story on Martha and Dorothy (and their lady love, in case you didn’t get that, duh).

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Babel

2 Dec

iss

This past summer, I wrote a few pieces of short fiction for the Library of Virginia´s Dark Side contest (one of which ended up nabbing second place and winning me, among other library knickknacks, a snazzy Walt Whitman-scented candle – whatever that means). I´d forgotten about the rest of the entries I wrote until my literature professor here in Valencia asked us to write a piece of science fiction with a female narrator.  As this fit the bill perfectly, I thought I´d try my hand at some translation.  Below is the story in both English and Spanish.

English

It’s shifts like this one where I’d trade every last cigarette from my ration pack for a scoop of ice cream that isn’t freeze-dried, or a green skirt instead of my uniform jumpsuits, or a window that doesn’t look out on stars and nebulas pinwheeling past. Shifts that go for eleven hours, from the moment I roll out of my bunk in the American quarters until I head back for a protein bar and a few minutes of quiet. Shifts where my fingers burn from manipulating keys and wires like it’s some kind of game.

“Talia.” I don’t look. There’s a crick in my neck from staring at one of the maintenance boards for the main solar panel array. “Hey. Talia. You hear me? Look alive.” It’s Ramirez’s voice, the young Texan with big ears who got here two weeks ago. He still has that sturdy glow of someone who’s come from Earth not long ago.

“What do you need, Ramirez?”

“Pass me your set of pliers, would you?”

“Yeah, sure.” I give him the worn set we share among our crew of six.

He touches me on the shoulder. “Only half an hour left until we’ve finished our daytime.”

“Yeah, maybe. We need this repaired if we want to keep the toilets flushing.” I wonder when the stale air and sterile walls of the ISS will grind down his smile, the light in his eyes.

It only takes forty-five minutes past the end of our day cycle for us to completely rework the wiring. “Not so bad,” says Xiao, listlessly flipping her black ponytail over her shoulder as we pack our toolkits. “We’ll be able to shower for another week, at least. Come on, let’s check out the news.” Our wrists ache as the six of us – Ramirez, Xiao, Welch, Koerner, Ortuña, and me – walk single-file through the narrow halls. We pass a woman with the Japanese flag on her uniform, two whispering Brazilians, a gaggle of Spaniards. We only nod to the Japanese woman. President Adamson is in diplomatic talks with the Japanese prime minister right now, so we can afford to be friendly.

The rec room is filled with the tang of sweat and the babble of five different vidscreens. There are people eating packets of rehydrated kung pao chicken and playing cards, but most are watching the screens. I see images of tanks and soldiers and men in suits flash by in the dizzying tango of a news report.

“It’s the Israeli-Egyptian border this time,” Swenson, one of our astrophysicists, tells me as I slide onto a chair. “The Egyptians have surrounded it. Their president says he needs proof that they don’t have neutron bombs.”

“Are we involved yet?”

“Adamson hasn’t commented.”

“Just doesn’t want to hurt his chances in the 2052 election,” mutters Xiao.

“The Egyptians are using this as an excuse,” says Arsenault in his guttural English, puffing on a smokeless cigar. We’ve been on good terms with the French lately, so Arsenault and the rest of his crew are sitting near the American table. I look around and notice that the Egyptians aren’t here. The Israelis are huddled in a corner, fingers clenched, brows together. I remember what my superior told me when I made it into the ISS Bridging Borders program a year ago: You’ll be representing the United States, okay, Gardner? So you’ll act like every single person up there is your brother or sister, even if their higher-ups are trying to beat the crap out of ours planetside. Easy in theory. Not so much in practice.

“Hey,” says Xiao, whipping a deck of cards out of her uniform pocket. “Anyone up for a game of blackjack before night cycle?”

I shrug. “Why not?”

“What’ll we bet?” asks Ramirez.

The idea is in my head before I can stop it. “Our comm minutes. If you go bust, you give them up.”

“But…” Swenson blanches. “We only get fifteen this week-”

“So don’t play,” I say, grabbing the deck from Xiao and shuffling. A perk of being one of the best mechanical engineers in the world is the ability to riffle a deck better than a Vegas card shark. Swenson’s eyes go hooded, like a snake’s, and she sits back down. I deal out two cards to her, Xiao, Ramirez, Koerner, Arsenault, and myself. “Remember. Over twenty-one and you’re as good as spaced. Xiao? Hit or stay?”

“Hit me,” she says, her fingers restlessly twining in her hair, her gaze glued to the vidscreen. I send a card shooting across the table.

“Koerner?”

“Hit, captain.”

“Swenson?”

“Stay.”

Their voices weave themselves into the hum of the news report. David Ely, chair of Middle Eastern Studies at Stanford, joins us with commentary. I think of those extra minutes blinking on my comm, of my mother’s tinny voice, piped in from Virginia. Of Cassie’s low, animal-like cooing. Sometimes I think I am forgetting the way it feels to tug a brush through my daughter’s hair. I don’t know how tall she is anymore. We need you, my superior said when I asked for leave. It’s a mess down here, but up there? You guys might be doing something good.

“Bust,” says Xiao three rounds later, leaving only Arsenault and me still in the game. He has three cards face-down and one, a jack, face-up. I stare at him. His lips are pursed like an old woman’s.

“Stay,” he says, not shifting.

Sources have not yet found evidence of enhanced radiation weapons.

I have a six face-up, a three, four, and seven face-down. Twenty. With four cards and one a face card, he has to be at twenty-one. Or twenty, and dealer loses a tie.

“Hit,” I say, and deal myself another card, fingers twitching for an ace. Arsenault watches, stone-faced, as I turn it over. It’s a seven.

“Well?” he says.

This just in, blare the screens. Egyptian forces have crossed the Israeli border.

“Your game,” I say, and get up to leave.

Spanish

Estos son el tipo de turno cuando intercambiaría mi último cigarrillo de mi paquete de raciones por una bola de helado que no se deshidrate, o una falda verde en el lugar de mi uniforme de mono, o una ventana que no mire a las estrellas y nébulas como molinillos. Turnos que duran once horas, desde el momento en que me despierto en dormitorio americano hasta que yo vuelvo para una tableta de proteína y unos minutos de silencio. Turnos en que me duelen los dedos a causa de manipular las cuerdas y los cables como si fuera un tipo de juego.

-Talia.- No miro al hablador. Tengo tortícolis a de quedarme mirando al tablón de mantenimiento que controla los paneles solares. -Ey. Talia. ¿Puedes oírme? ¿Estás viva?- Es la voz de Ramírez, el joven tejano con orejas grandes que llegó aquí hace dos semanas. Todavía tiene el buen color de alguien que no hace mucho tiempo que ha llegado de la Tierra.

-¿Qué necesitas, Ramírez?-

-Pásame unos alicates, por favor?-

-Sí, claro.- Le doy los alicates que compartimos entre nuestro equipo de seis personas.

Me toca el hombro. -Solo media hora hasta que hayamos terminado con nuestro ciclo de día.-

-Quizás. Tenemos que reparar esto si queremos tirar de la cadena.- Me pregunto cuándo el aire viciado y paredes estériles de la estación ISS hará añicos de él.

Cuesta cuarenta y cinco minutos después del fin oficial de nuestro ciclo de día para revisar completamente la instalación eléctrica. -Bien,- dice Xiao, lanzando su colita negra sobre el hombro mientras arreglamos nuestras cajas de herramientas. -Podemos ducharnos por otra semana, por lo menos. Vamos, vemos las noticias.- Nos duelen las muñecas mientras nosotros – Ramírez, Xiao, Welch, Koerner, Ortuña, y yo – caminamos uno tras otro a través de los pasillos estrechos. Nos cruzamos con una mujer con la bandera japonesa en su uniforme, dos brasileños cuchicheando, y una bandada de españoles. Solamente saludamos con la cabeza a la mujer japonesa. El presidente Adamson está en conversaciones con el primer ministro japonés, así que podemos ser amables.

La sala de recreo está llena del olor penetrante del sudor y el parloteo de cinco pantallas. Hay gente comiendo paquetes de pollo kung-pao rehidratado y jugando a los naipes, pero la mayoría están mirando las pantallas. Veo imágenes de tanques y soldados y hombres vestidos en trajes pasando a toda velocidad en el tango mareado de las noticias.

-Es la frontera entre Israel y Egipto esta vez,- me dice Swenson, una de nuestros astrofísicos, mientras me sento. -Los egipcios la tienen rodeada. Su presidente dice que necesita una prueba que de no haya bombas de neutrinos.-

-¿Estamos entrañados ya?

-Adamson está sin comentarios.-

-Él no quiere hacer daño a su casualidad en las elecciones de 2052,- murmura Xiao.

-Los egipcios están usando eso como excusa,- dice Arsenault en su inglés gutural, dando pitadas a un cigarrillo eléctrico. Nos hemos llevado bien con los franceses recientemente, así que Arsenault y el resto de su equipo se sientan cerca de la mesa americana. Miro alrededor y me doy cuenta deque los egipcios no están. Los israelíes se acurrucan en un rincón, los dedos apretados, las cejas de punto. Recuerdo lo que mi superior me dijo hace un año, cuando ganó la entrada al programa de ‘ISS Bridging Borders.’ Representarás a los Estados Unidos, vale, Gardner? Entonces vas a actuar como si cada persona fuera tu hermano, aunque sus superiores estén tratando de dar una paliza a nosotros en la Tierra. Fácil, teóricamente. En la práctica, no lo es.

-Oye,- dice Xiao, cogiendo una baraja de cartas del bolsillo de su uniforme. -¿Alguien quiere jugar la veintiuna antes del ciclo de noche?-

Me encojo de hombros. -¿Por qué no?-

-¿Qué tipo de apuesta?- dice Ramírez.

La idea está en mi mente antes de que pueda detenerla. -Nuestros minutos de móvil. Si alguien quiebra, renunciará a los minutos.-

-Pero…- Swenson se pone pálida. -Recibimos solo quince minutos esta semana…-

-Entonces no juegues,- digo, cogiendo las cartas de Xiao y barajándolas. Una ventaja extra de ser una de los mejores ingenieros mecánicos del mundo es la habilidad de hojear una baraja mejor que un tahúr de Las Vegas. Los ojos de Swenson están encapuchados ahora, como los de una serpiente, y se sienta. –Recordad. Más de veintiuno y estáis muertos. ¿Xiao? ¿Doblas o no?-

-Doblo,- dice, los dedos entrelazándose nerviosamente, su mirada fijada a las pantallas. Le tiro una carta a ella sobre la mesa.

-¿Koerner?-

-Doblo, capitana.-

-¿Swenson?-

-No voy a doblar.-

Sus voces se mezclan con el zumbido de las noticias. David Ely, chair of Middle Eastern Studies at Stanford, joins us with commentary. Pienso en los minutos extras parpadeando en mi móvil, en la voz metálica de mi madre, que está en Virginia. En el arrullo bajo de Cassie. A veces creo que me olvido como me sentía cuando cepillaba el pelo de mi hija. Ahora, no sé su altura, exactamente. Te necesitamos, me dijo mi superior cuando pedí permiso para estar con mi familia. Aquí todo es un lío, pero ¿allá arriba? Es posible que hagáis algo bueno.

-He perdido,- dice Xiao después de tres rondas. Nos quedamos yo y Arsenault en el juego. Él tiene tres cartas boca abajo y una, la sota, boca arriba. Miro fijamente a él. Frunce los labios como los de una anciana.

-No voy a doblar,- dice.

Sources have not yet found evidence of enhanced radiation weapons.

Tengo un seis boca arriba y un tres, un cuatro, y un siete boca abajo. Veinte. Con cuatro cartas y una boca abajo, tiene que tener veintiuno. O veinte, y el repartidor pierde un empate.

-Doblo,- digo, y me doy otra carta, los dedos esperando un as. Arsenault me mira, con la cara como piedra, mientras la pongo boca arriba. Es un siete.

-¿Y qué?- dice.

This just in, retumban las pantallas. Egyptian forces have crossed the Israeli border.

-Has ganado,- digo, y me pongo de pie para irme.

Obviously, I´m pretty new at this translation business, so if you have any suggestions or ideas for me, don´t hesitate to let me know.  I´d love to hear from any Spanish-speakers about how this piece sounds!  In addition, thanks to Jesús, my superguay professor, for helping me translate.

The Ballad of Miranda Levine

8 Nov

(Just a quick character sketch I did awhile back that never really turned into anything bigger.  It was based, a bit, on the Miranda alluded to in the Decemberist songs “Leslie Anne Levine” and “We Both Go Down Together.”

Also, for the purposes of this story…er, Levine totally rhymes with ‘eyes.’  Uh.  Yeah.  Mhmm.)

The sailors in the tavern corner have sonorous voices, deep as the foghorns of clippers setting sail for South Australia. They linger on her skin like harbor fog. Come here, sweet, the men always say, hands on her petticoats. Come here, we’ve got a little song for you, don’t we?

She clamps her lips together, shoves a scrim of filthy hair into her face.

O wake her, o shake her, o shake that girl with the blue eyes –

Fingers ring her birdlike wrists.

O Johnny’s come to Bluegate Fields, come to Miranda Levine.

Once she lived above a theater made of bricks the color of rouge paint. Her father, magnificent in his frock coat and thicket of a mustache, balanced accounts while roaring lines from Faustus. Young actresses wore their hair in lustrous coils and tinted their lips so bright it hurt to look.

She remembers a book with hundreds of pages, a book full of plays. When it stormed, their fluttering finch of a servant would read to her from the play about her namesake. Miranda the sorcerer’s daughter, Miranda the island girl with sea eyes and a heart of gold.

How beauteous mankind is, that faraway ocean pearl of a girl would say. O, brave new world, that has such people in’t!

But it has been ten years since an audience filled the worn velvet seats. The brick theater has burned to the ground with the company inside it, dashing any hope of a Ferdinand into the filthy harbor water. And so Miranda has wandered the street, growing furtively, a soft-eyed thing caught in the cobblestone cracks. There has been no Prospero to push aside Caliban.

The city is not kind to those who slip into its undertow.

She endures, this sixteen-year-old Miranda with a thick waist, now nothing more than a tattooed tavern girl from the Surrey slums. Sailors with choleric eyes and laudanum breath pluck at her, chanting until their voices blend together like the boy-choirs of Southwark churches.

O wake her, o shake her, o shake that girl with the blue eyes, they say.

O Johnny took a tumble, a tumble with little Miranda Levine.

Swan Song

15 Aug

Part 4 in the Pilgrims Series

Everybody knows about Alzheimer’s, after all. It had happened to friends, great-aunts, geriatric celebrities. But I always saw it as a distant concept, as faraway as Saturn spinning in its orbit. Never us, I thought. Never Sam. But I should have expected it. It was the supremest of ironies, after all: I, who forgot nothing, watched while my husband’s mind fell into ruins.

The forgetting was swift. First where he had left the keys, then what days to take his rainbow array of pills, and then the month he was born. Next came the year, which was 2001. Last were the names: our children’s. Mine. His own. It seemed that as his memory decayed, mine grew finer, like steel sharpened on the whetstone. I had brief flashes of recall: the color of the shirt he wore the day we met (kelly green). The flowers he got me on our first date (lilies, not roses). The aftershave he used on our honeymoon (Kiehls).

I committed him to hospice care. And what else could I have done? The average teacher’s salary in Maine is $35,000. Sam had the whimsical mind of any poet – we had no 401(k) or hidden bank account filled with his book royalties stashed away. It was that or sell the house, the one Sam built, with its arching gables and hidden staircases and walls decked with obscure local art. But that was unthinkable. Even if he didn’t remember that it had been his hands who pieced floorboard to floorboard until a dwelling began to sprout, seedlike, from the ground.

I visited Sam every day. His case was acute, the nurses told me, and he had far more bad days than good. It made me tremble to to see him wearing an adult diaper and struggle to recall the words that used to give him so much joy.

Rose? he called me two months before he died.

I’m not Rose, Sam. That’s your sister. I’m Grace. Your wife.

His were unfocused and milky like cirrus clouds. Who?

Grace.

Rosie, what did Mr. Roosevelt say on the radio last night? I can’t remember.

I’m Grace, Sam. And Roosevelt hasn’t been in office for sixty years. This is 2001.

Where is Rose?

I clenched my teeth. Rose is fucking dead.

He stared at me, his jaw quivering. A tear dribbled from the corner of one eye. No. Oh, no. Not Rosie.

Never mind, Sam, I’m Rose. I’m here. Forget what I said. I felt nauseous with guilt.

When I came back a week later, he was bent double over his desk, his pen dashing across the page like it had before he ever got sick.

He’s feeling better today? I asked the nurses, my heart light.

Yes, they told me. But, Mrs. Hensley…

What is it?

See for yourself.

Pages of notebook paper covered his bed like a second blanket and coated the Formica table under the window. All filled with one word.

Sophie Sophie Sophie Sophie Sophie Sophie Sophie Sophie Sophie Sophie

Sophie was a tiny woman with wrists like a sparrow and hair as thick and white as fresh snowfall. She lived at the other end of the hospice, and her memory had been gone for years. The nurses said she never spoke anything but a steady patter of glossolalia. She was as enchanting as a child.

Why are you doing this, Sam? I asked, though I already knew the answer.

He stared at me, his face sunny. I’m in love, Rose.

Oh. I swallowed. What about me?

Don’t you worry, Rosie, I’ll never forget about you. His hands swept over my cheeks, the touch of a brother.

The nurses told me to bring in objects that might jog his memory of me: that azure blouse of mine he liked to run his hands over, shaky-handed candid shots of us, bottles of the perfume I had used for years. They did not tell me that he was beyond saving, but I did not need them to. You never know where you’ll find the things that make him remember, they said. Look for meaning everywhere.

So I searched for meaning in the fall of water from the tap, and the ceaseless shift of red numbers on the digital clock, and the graying of my hair. I searched for it in my students’ smooth faces. I even searched for it in the pages and pages he filled with Sophie’s name.

But I never found it there. I never found it anywhere.

When he died, I ordered lilies (not roses) for the funeral. I wore kelly green and dabbed on some Kiehl’s aftershave that I found buried in a bathroom drawer. The memories pricked at me, pin sharp, but I preferred it that way. Maybe somewhere it meant a remembrance, Sam recalling my name, a swan song of thought.

Check out the other stories in the series:

Letty Greene, Queen of Hearts

The Angry Feminist Manifesto

Babes in the Wood

© 2012 Elizabeth Ballou

Babes in the Wood

1 Aug

Part 3 of the Pilgrims Series

Once upon a time I had two children. Fairy-tale children. Perfect children. Skin as smooth as moonlight, hair as black as obsidian, lips as red as arterial blood.

And their names were Jessie and Max, and the kingdom loved them dearly…

But in the end that didn’t count for much.

The Sickness took them quick, the way it strikes the young. Fevers of 101 the first day, grand mal seizures the next. By the third day, when they were hallucinating, I knew it wouldn’t be much longer. It was before they put out pamphlets saying this strain of influenza is particularly harmful to children, watch for signs of illness, do not let them out of your sight, wash your hands. But parents are intuitive, as animals are. I did not need to be told these things. What they might as well have said was every child under the age of 5 is dead. Deceased, gone, kicked the bucket, croaked, might as well be pushing up daisies even now.

After they died I spent hours in the Ogonwa County library, my tall frame hunched gracelessly in the pastel-colored children’s chairs. The Kids’ Corner was as silent as a morgue. No parents lucky enough to have surviving children brought them out in public anymore. The risk of contagion was enormous and rising every day. It meant no more heads bobbing above the pint-sized bookshelves, no muted patter of Keds and Mary Janes on the floor.

It meant just me, Saul Paez, the only reader in a room full of books likeWhere the Wild Things Are and The Giving Tree.

Beautiful in their simplicity, I discovered. They calmed me. I had tried the adult section, but my hands kept straying to medical books. I learned facts I had never wanted to know.

I learned that rigor mortis lasts for 36 hours.

That flies are incredibly sensitive to the smell of decomposition.

That it takes 50 days for a body to decompose completely.

Better to be reading Shel Silverstein.

But my favorites were the fairy tales. That’s what Jessie, four and a half when the Sickness took her, liked to hear. Please, Daddy, tell me the Twelve Dancing Princesses again. The Frog Prince.Cinderella. Her café-au-lait skin creased against the pillow, eyes bright. Please, just one more story.

On a foggy November day, I found a fairy tale I had never heard of before. A strange story.Unsettling. It was called Babes in the Wood. It went like this:

 Two children are taken in by their uncle when their parents die. Tiny things: fingers pencil-thin, wrists ringed with fat, feet so little they can barely support the children’s bodies. The uncle is the opposite. Lean, sinister, evil.  The quintessential villain dreamed up by centuries of goodwives. And he doesn’t much like the idea of taking care of his deadbeat sister’s kids. So what does he do? He hires two hit men to take the babes out into the woods and kill them.

But one of the hit men turns out to be a bleeding-heart humanitarian at the last second. He convinces his partner to leave the children in the woods rather than kill them. So the kids, hand in hand, wander the forest. They hear the robins singing somewhere far-off, their voices as illusory as the mist wreathing the trees.  A night passes. Then another day. Their flesh strains over their little bones. When they cry, no one hears them. And so they finally lie down in the shade of an elm, feet worn and bleeding, and clasp hands. And die.

But this is the part that makes me read it over and over. The robins cover them with leaves. They bury the children in ash bark and dust. They immortalize them, there in the woods.

No one lives happily ever after. It’s not that kind of story. But it comforts me.

Check out other entries in the Pilgrims series:

Letty Greene, Queen of Hearts

The Angry Feminist Manifesto

© 2012 Elizabeth Ballou

Love-in-Idleness

26 Jul

Yet marked I where the bolt of Cupid fell:

It fell upon a little western flower,

Before milk-white, now purple with love’s wound,

And maidens call it love-in-idleness.

-Oberon, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Her voice smells like violets crushed underfoot, a pungent whisper of a scent, the kind that comes in a crystal-cut perfume bottle.

“ – a meeting tonight, I won’t be home until ten,” she’s saying, the crackle of phone static distorting her voice. But even though she is fifteen miles away, shunted into a ten-by-ten cubicle on the fifth floor of Baker & Allen, he can still smell the violets on her breath. “No need to get me anything to eat, I’ll scrounge up something on the way home. Bye, honey.” A pause. “Love you.” The message ends with a harsh beep, and the cool monotone of his cell phone asks him if he would like to delete it. He jabs his index finger at the number pad, indicating that no, he would like to store the message away in the annals of his phone so that he can take it out like a favorite memory and savor the smell of her voice.

For a moment, he wonders whether to call her back, wish her luck for the meeting. But in the end fear overrides his desire to speak to her. What if she’s busy? Talking with her boss? Making another phone call? Out to lunch? He has become irrationally terrified of talking on the phone. Confronting the mechanical silence of the answering machine makes him talk softly, his words coming out in short, incoherent bursts. Nerves make him run his hands through his hair, which is an un-color of dull brown and gray, and he feels his fingers slide over the bald spot that tops his scalp, a traitor to his body. That morning he had tried to brush a few strands over it, but they only hang there limply like colorless pieces of dental floss, concealing nothing.

He paces, nervous, counting his steps as they echo through the empty house. One, two, three, four. Turn. One, two, three, four. Turn. One, two… Doing this makes him feel secure, and if someone asked him why he would not be able to answer. It is the same compulsion that makes him languish by the window for hours during the night, waiting for a star to fall into his open hands. It is the aloneness that makes me do these things, he thinks to himself. If Allison were home more often, then maybe I could…

Could what?

He hasn’t told her about these compulsions, which have begun to lurk in the crevices of his mind, secrets without names. He is getting older, his eyes turning rheumy and pale as though he had left them out to dry in the sun, and the space between them is becoming uncrossably wide. He has seen her staring a moment too long at one of her coworkers when he escorts her to work functions. Thomas, he thinks. His name is Thomas. Thomas is young and animated and sharp, unlike himself. When he looks in the mirror he sees a blurred outline, as if he were a figure drawn in pencil that someone has rubbed out with water.

Allison will not be home at ten. He knows this.

He takes out his phone and replays her message, wishing he understood himself again, that he understood any of this. He closes his eyes as he smells the violets on her breath and remembers when they were young, when the morning sun tasted like eggs fried in butter in a house full of windows.

“Would you like to make a call?” his phone asks him when he is done.

He considers the question. “No,” he tells it, and begins to pace again.

The Angry Feminist Manifesto

21 Jul

Part 2 of the Pilgrims Flash Fiction Series

Okay, so maybe I killed them.

And maybe it wasn’t an accident.

But I don’t regret what I did, and don’t you think for one moment I ever would.

Look, I know I’m not beautiful. Me, with my mousy hair and thin face and spotty skin? Who are we kidding? Other people can be beautiful, sure. But not me. Not Sally Leanne Beauchesne, U.S. Army Private First Class, Fourth Infantry Division.

That doesn’t mean Mike had to say what he said, though.

Let me back up here. I entered the army fresh out of high school. Thought it would be good for people like me – you know, not pretty, not brainy, just brawny. And it was – until I got placed in the Twelfth Infantry Regiment for deployment to Afghanistan. Up until then, I had been the only girl. Not that it mattered much, since I don’t have any curves to speak of. Nothing to mark me out as different from the rest. Mike, Sam, Manuel, Benjamin – they all saw me as one of the guys.

But Abigail, she was beautiful. Perfectly placed highlights, bee-stung lips. At least a D-cup. She was like an unholy cross between G.I. Jane and Mila Kunis. And Christ, could she shoot. Not as well as me, of course, but she was competition. And she rubbed me the wrong way. Her breathy little giggles and her Christie Brinkley highlights made me clench my fists every time she walked by during training. The way the men followed her every footstep like lapdogs pissed me off.

You probably think I’m jealous of Abigail. But let me make it clear: that’s not it at all. Who would want to be a red-lipped slut like her? No way. This is the army, sweetie, not high school, I wanted to say. What I felt was anger. How dare she walk into the training compound with hips swinging like she had clockwork springs in those bones? Where was her dignity?

I’m a feminist, see, and I don’t bother to hide it. My Gramma Louise taught me well. The daughter of a West Virginian coal miner, she was. She always said living on top of those mines gave her a fiery soul. Said the fire would creep into her veins while she slept. So short she had to sit on a phone book when she drove, but she made up for that in temperament. And she never got anything from a man that she could do herself, which was most everything. Got a job, raised my mother. Then raised me. Women are sacred creatures, she would say. Adam was the prototype, but Eve was the finished product.

So you can see what I mean, right? Abigail was abusing what it meant to be a woman. But I wasn’t planning on shooting her. It wasn’t until Mike said Jesus, Sal, go back to West Virginia and screw your cousin for us, you ugly cunt, you make me want to pry my eyes out with my fingernails that I lost it. See, I knew he wouldn’t have said those things if Abigail hadn’t been there. I was yin, she was yang. I was the moon, she was the sun. Yaddayaddayadda.

She was right, my gramma. That coal-fire in her blood passed through my own mamma to live in me too, and in that moment it burned me clean through. So can you really blame me when I crept over to Abigail’s bunk and put a clean shot through her forehead? And then felt the fire licking at my heart, scorching it away, until I did the same to Mike?

No. You really can’t.

Gramma Louise would’ve approved, after all.

Shotgun Sally was one of those characters that seemed to spring, fully-formed, from my head, christened and all.  While writing my novella, I often found that I had to rein her back because she wanted to run her mouth during every scene (and if she wasn’t in the scene, she’d holler at me until I inserted her).  She’s the kind of girl who demands attention.

Other stories in the series:

Letty Greene, Queen of Hearts

Babes in the Wood

© 2012, Elizabeth Ballou