Life Lesson

“The gods were pissed off.  That’s all there was to it,” said Grandpa Ellis.  “Once’t your grandma sold off the last blue plate china, all hell broke loose.”

“Why do you say that?” his grandson Stan said.

“Because that summer was broilin’ hot. Nary a cloud passed over head and seldom did we feel so much as a breeze.”

“Come on, Grandpa,” Stan said.  “You know that was right at the beginning of the Dust Bowl years.  It had nothing to do with china.”

After taking a puff of his favorite corncob pipe and blowing a series of well-formed smoke circles, Grandpa said, “That china arrived in a rainstorm.  Just after your Aunt Sara Sue was born.  Your grandma ordered it once’t she had enough egg money saved.”

“You’ve told that story a million times.”

“And you’ve never listened, neither.  If’n you had, you’d understand why the gods got angry.” Grandpa tamped out his pipe, shoved it in its pouch, then walked down the front porch steps..

“I don’t believe all that hocus-pocus stuff.”

“You should, because if you did, you’d pay attention when the gods speak.”

Stan stepped to the rail.  Looking out over the Montana horizon, he caught the almost imperceptible sound of a cowbell, the louder caw of a crow floating overhead, and the distant barking of a dog.

“Do you want to hear the story, or not?” Grandpa called over his shoulder as he headed toward the barn.

“Sure, why not? I’ve got nothing better to do.”

“Complainin’ again? I don’t want to hear another word about the benefits of the Internet,” Grandpa said, “as I’ve heard it all before.  I’ve plenty to do with things the way they are.” He slid open the door and stepped into the comfortable darkness.

Stan picked up a shovel and headed toward his mare’s stall, ready to muck it out. As he scooped out the soiled straw, Grandpa slipped into the oft-repeated story.

“Grandma got that china just afore we stepped into marriage. Some of her cousins stayed back east after graduating from the Indian school. Your grandmother moved back here as soon as she could slip away from them missionaries and rejoined what little was left of the tribe.

“The cousins, hearing that she was marryin’ sent that china packed in a barrel.  Shipped by train. All the way from ‘souri. Grandma, who had taken back her name, Nightingale, thought that blue china was the purtiest stuff she’d ever seen. So she packed it back in the barrel and hoisted it up to the top of her dad’s barn. By then her parents were ranchers, high up in the hills of Montana. Big Sky Country.

“Almost oncet a week Nightingale checked on that china, making sure it was safe.  She’d take out a plate or two, dust ‘em off, hold ‘em up to the light, thank the gods for ‘em, then pack ‘em back away. Until I came along.” Grandpa stroke his stallions’ nose. Joe blew into his hand, then nuzzled his pocket looking for a treat.

“I’m no Indian, as you well know, but I know a thing or two ‘bout Indian ways. I could smoke a pipe real good and knew some of the language. Having done some scouting when I was a youngster, those hills were like my second home. Being just a teenager myself, I was in town when the stagecoach pulled in carrying this beautiful Indian maiden. Although she was dressed like an eastern gal, her high cheekbones and raven-black hair gave her away. Nightingale walked with her head held high and her eyes looking over the roofs. Like a goddess come to earth. I fell in love with her right then and there, and decided to marry her.

“So I followed her up into the hills, far enough away that she was just a speck on the horizon. Well, that makes it sound as if she was by herself, but that’s not it at all. Her folks, what was left of ‘em, greeted the stagecoach with a rickety wagon pulled by two of the most beautiful draft horses known to man. So here I am following her and thinking about touching that hair, when all of a sudden I feel a prickling sensation running up my neck. I turns around, and right next to me was a man with the same cheekbones and hair. He rode next to me all the way to their ranch.

“When we pulled up in front of the house, he indicated that I was to stay in the saddle. Of course I did. The wild-west days were long gone, but you can never be sure up in the hills whose laws are in place.

“After what felt like an hour, a white-haired elder stepped out on the porch. With just a nod, he indicated that I should come inside. So I did. When I stepped through the doorway, the younger man said I was to smoke to the four gods. I faced each direction in turn, puffed out a perfect circle (thanks goodness I knew how to do that!), nodding in respect as I did, then bowed to the elder, who now sat in an old overstuffed chair in the center of the room. Behind his back stood the woman.

“Well, to shorten the story, he agreed that I could marry the girl if I’d stay on the ranch and help with the work. We married that afternoon without ever sharing one word betwixt us.”

Grandpa picked up a harness that needed polishing. He ran a rag over and over the silver until it shone.

“All went well for the longest time. Nightingale was the best thing that ever had come my way, and she seemed satisfied with me. But times changed. More and more ranches sprung up, and the nearest village became a town. Socializing became part of doing business, and so Nightingale and me had people up to dinner now and then.

“Each time, she climbed up into the barn and got out her blue china, one piece at a time. Holding it like a baby, she carried those pieces to the big house, which was now ours, and set the purtiest table I’d ever seen. Blue china, pewter cups, and hand-me-down silver from my great-aunt who had passed with no relatives but me.

“Then the mayor and his wife came over. That wife had a reputation for a sharp mouth and evil spirit. She took a look at that china and laughed. Not a happy-for-you kind of laugh, but one that said the china was old-fashioned and backwards.”

“What did Grandma do?” Stan asked as he filled a wheelbarrow with the dirty straw.

“She was so embarrassed she ran from the room and wouldn’t come out until the company disappeared over the horizon. Then, without a word, she repacked the china and never got it out until the day she sold it to a traveling salesman.

“Now things had been going great at the ranch. Our horses were the best stock around, and folks lined up to get at one of our fouls. The cattle were prime Texas longhorns, the best to be had. Fat on good grass and alfalfa, they were plump in all the right places. Meat delicious. We were coming up in the world. I had just paid for telephone poles and lines to be run out to the ranch, and was saving for electricity.”

“Wait, you didn’t have electricity all that time?”

“No. But that was okay because only townsfolk had it.”

Stan pushed the wheelbarrow out the door, dumped the straw in a heap, then returned to the barn to find Grandpa mending a bit of an old saddle. “What happened next?’

“Nightingale’s actions ruined everything. No sooner had that salesman pulled off our land than the sun came up as big as a yellow ball. It hung in that sky all day. Day after day that ball came up. No clouds. Not a drop of rain. The hay baked and the cattle suffered. The nearby spring dried up and so I had to haul barrels over to the river and cart water to the ranch.  It got hotter and hotter.

“The ground turned into hard-baked clay. Huge cracks crossed the ground, creating a crazy patchwork pattern of death. I sold off the cattle to anyone that offered a decent price. Got rid of all but two of the horses, too.  Had trouble feeding them.

“Sounds awful,” Stan said as he sat on a bale of hay near Grandpa.

“It was bad. When the winds came up in what should have been fall, dirt blew up in our faces and covered everything. Things were a real mess with no hope of getting better.  I was just trying to hang on to the ranch.  That’s all.

“Finally I’d had it.  I marched up to Nightingale and told her to start praying. To make amends with the gods. To offer whatever she could to make peace. She took up the pipe just like that, blessed the four corners, then fell to her knees and prayed. The gods told her that she had to cut her knee-length hair and weave it through the rafters of the barn.”
“Wow. I remember Grandma’s hair being short.”

“After things got better, she decided to let it grow out. But it never grew from then on. It was a big price to pay, but that afternoon clouds rolled over the horizon and rain fell.  Within hours the well was full, the springs overflowed, and dormant sprung from the ground.  From that day forward, this ranch has prospered.”

Grandpa returned to the porch and refilled his pipe. He took a big puff, then looked out over the horizon. As far as he could see, an undulating wave of grass spread golden in the lazy late afternoon sun. Foals played in the pasture, and longhorns meandered about the open fields. It was a serene scene beyond words.

“So it was the gods fault.”

“Yep,” Grandpa said. “If’n Nightingale had ignored the mayor’s wife, she would still have that china and her long hair. That’s why you have to listen to the gods, Stan.”

“That’s why you want me to study agriculture when I go to the university, right?”

“Nope.  I want you to see what the gods want, because if you don’t listen, the price they may ask later may be huge. Ask and you’ll know. Nightingale and I learned our lesson. Now I want you to learn yours.”

“Can we have dinner now?  I’m starved,” Stan said as he headed into the house.  As he entered the door, he picked up the ceremonial pipe kept on Grandma’s favorite table, lit it, blessed the four directions, then fell to his knees and prayed. He didn’t want the gods to get pissed off at him.

Waiting Against the Wall

Another dance.  Another wall to lean against.  Rosie Coors stared at the milling crowd, looking for her best friend’s face, but she was nowhere to be found.  Maria had promised to meet her by the buffet table, at exactly seven o’clock, a reasonable time to eat dinner.  Rosie has stood there, looking foolish, every now and then grabbing something and stuffing it in her mouth so as to have something to do.

It was now almost nine, the so-called friend had not appeared and tears had formed, fallen and been wiped away countless times.

Rosie though, “I wish I had stayed home.  This is so embarrassing!” Another round of tears fell which wiped away using the sleeve of her old-fashioned cardigan sweater.  She looked at the sleeve, at the holes that were scattered about, and wondered if Maria had seen her, and stayed away, embarrassed to call Rosie friend.

In the background, or maybe it was in the foreground, the band hired by her school’s Activity Director played rap and hip-hop, types of music she detested both because the loud bass beat gave her a headache and because the lyrics offended her sensibilities.

Rosie spotted an empty chair against the wall and hustled over to claim it.

“That’s my chair.”

“I don’t see your name on it,” Rosie responded.  Her eyes traveled upward, past the neatly creased black slacks, starched white shirt, and bright red bowtie.  No othere than the school pariah, Dave Nickols, Geeky Dave, stood there glowering at her. “I’m sitting in it, so it’s not yours.”

 

            “If you won’t get up, then will you dance with me?”  Dave’s tenor voice came out as a shout as he tried to be heard over the noisy band.  “Please?”

“Sure,” Rosie replied.  “I came here to dance, so yes.”

As they stepped onto the dance floor, the band switched to a slow song. Dave placed his right hand on Rosie’s waist and pulled her close.  Step, step, step, they moved.

She smiled as they glided over the floor. Rosie loved to dance, had learned from her father as a child, but had never danced with a boy who knew what he was doing. Whoever would have thought that Geeky Dave would have known how to twirl her under his arm, and then pull her tightly against his chest?

“You’re a good dancer,” he said.

“Thanks.  My father taught me when I was a kid.” She leaned forward, enticed by his cologne, a strange mix of deodorant and something she’d once smelled as she passed through a department smell. Kind of musk-like. Feral. “You’re a good dancer as well.”

“My mom insisted on lessons, which I went to reluctantly because I was the only boy,” he said.  They flew around the floor, in rhythm to the music.  Dave skillfully guided them through the crowds, finding pathways that opened and then disappeared, consuming them like some symbiotic monster.

Rosie’s long-brown hair swirled around her head, flowing like water. When the music stopped she smiled at Dave, whose grin was as wide as a canyon.  “Thank you,” he said.  “I really enjoyed that.”

“Thank you.  Would you like to get some punch?” Rosie reached for his hand before he could scamper away.

“I’m starving,” he said, “so can we grab some food and find a table?” Dave disentangled his hand from Rosie’s, and then placed it in the center of her back. He gently guided her to the food table.  They went down the line, loading up with salads, rolls, and cookies for dessert.

At the end, after stuffing two packages of utensils in his shirt pocket, Dave handed Rosie a cup of punch, got one for himself, then said, “Let’s go outside.  It’s hot in here.”

Rosie led the way through the gym doors.  The cool night air felt good on her flushed cheeks.  “Let’s sit on the benches over by the cafeteria.”

“Sure.”

After taking a few bites, Rosie realized she’d have to be the one to initiate conversation. She was shy, but Dave was known to be practically nonverbal. “Aren’t you in my Chemistry class?”

“Yes.  We’ve had the same science teacher, the same period, since junior high.  Weird, huh? Plus we’re in the same Advanced Algebra class,” Dave said.

“Oh.  I don’t pay much attention to the other students.  They ignore me, so I ignore them. It’s been that way since I was a kid.”

“Yeah, I know what that’s like.”

“I’m sorry that I’ve never seen you before,” Rosie said as she fnished off her potato salad. “Who do you have for English?”

“I’m in Davidson’s AP class. Same as you.” Dave wiped a splatter of punch off his plaid shirt, “Have you decided on a thesis for your term paper?”

“I’ve been thinking about analyzing Steinbeck’s use of light and dark in his novels,” Rosie said.  “Light always indicates that something positive is going to happen to a main character.  It seems to be pretty consistent.  What about you?”

“I’m torn between comparing themes in Dickens’ novels and writing about Angelou’s use of language to create emotional reactions.  Which one do you think I should choose?”

“I don’t know,” Rosie said. She stood, looked around, found a garbage can near a planter, then dumped her remains inside. She dusted off her hands, then, realizing that Dave had followed her, asked, “Do you want to dance?  The band’s playing a slow song.”

Dave reached out his hand, palm up. Rosie gently placed her hand in his.

“He sure is a gentleman” she thought. “How come I’ve never noticed before?”

            As soon as they entered the gym, Dave pulled her close.  Their steps matched as they glided around the room.

For the rest of the evening, they danced, talked, ate, and smiled.

“I’ve had a great time,” Dave said after the band finished playing.  He walked Rosie out to the parking lot. “Do you need a ride home?”

“No. My Dad’s coming.”

Dave’s shoulders slumped. He sighed and without raising his head, asked, “Would you be interested in going out some time?”

Rosie nodded. “How about Saturday night?”

“Great. I’d love to talk more, but I’ve got to go. Thanks for dancing with me.”

“Yeah. I had a great time. Let’s talk Monday. Work out the details.”  Rosie smiled as she watched him walk away. Her senior year finally looked a whole lot brighter.

Dinner Talk

By the time Stan Ellis was finished mucking out the stalls, he was exhausted even though he’d been doing it for the past nine years. As an eight-year-old, when he first came to live with his grandparents, he hated the smell of the horses’ droppings, the texture of the straw, and working in the shadowy barn. Because he’d been born in the city, he knew nothing about ranch life and hadn’t planned on every living on one. But when his parents died, he’d had no choice.

His school day was followed by a hour and a half of band practice, something he’d recently added after Grandpa Ellis convinced him he needed an elective for college admissions. He’d picked up his grandpa’s old saxophone, and after watching a few YouTube videos, was soon playing elementary songs.

Band wasn’t too hard. It was marching and playing that exhausted him mentally and physically.

It was after four by the time he got home, then cleaning stalls for an hour before he could tackle homework. All of it added up to a lot of work.

Stan thoroughly washed his hands then made himself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. He pulled out his homework and began studying for a Physics test the next day. Just as he finished reviewing the assigned chapter his seventy-year old grandpa came in. He brought the outside in with him which Stan now found endearing.

“We’re having spaghetti tonight. Is that okay?” Grandpa asked as he pulled a pot and lid out of the cabinet.

“Sounds great. Can we have a salad too?”

“If you make it.”

Stan pulled lettuce, radishes, and cheese out of the refrigerator. He took a tomato off the counter and fetched bacon bits from the pantry. “So, are you going to give me the money or not?”

“Can you explain it to me again?”  Grandpa dumped a handful of noodles into a pan of boiling water and then wiped his hands on his jeans.

“The money’s due tomorrow or I can’t go to Disneyland.”

“Why’re you going there?”

“I’ve explained it several times.” Stan finished assembling the salad, set it on the table, and then flopped into a hand-hewn chair. “I’ve missed every deadline so far. I’m surprised my teacher’s still letting me go.”

Grandpa stirred the noodles with a wooden spoon. “Let’s see. What extra jobs have you done to earn money?”

Stan sighed and ran his hands over his lanky brown hair. “I dug the weeds out of the pony pens and I trimmed the bushes along the drive.”

“That’s part of your job,” Grandpa said.

“According to that line of reasoning, then anything I do around here is my job,” Stan said. “Look, Grandpa, I really want to go. I’ve got to pay the full amount tomorrow or I’m out.”

Grandpa slipped a loaf of French bread out of its wrapper and laid it on the cutting board. He picked up a knife and sliced off four hefty pieces. “Explain again the reason for the trip.”

“The band’s marching in the Main Street Parade and performing on the stage in Tomorrowland.” Stan leaned his chin on his hands and looked at his grandfather with sparkling eyes. “I want to go.”

After popping open a jar of sauce and pouring it into a pan, Grandpa sat at the table.  “How much are we talking about?”

“We’re flying, so that’s about $300. No hotel costs because we’re staying in a high school gym. They’re feeding us breakfast and dinner. Admission to the park is about $100. The only other cost is for my lunch.”

“So about $500?”

Stan shrugged. “Yeah.”

“I don’t have that kind of money.” Grandpa walked over to the stove, poured a little oil into the water with the noodles and then stirred the now simmering sauce.

“You sold a foal last week to Mr. Newton for a thousand dollars.”

“I paid bills with that money.  We owe Smith’s Hay and Feed over two thousand and Bill’s been asking for his money since he fixed the truck.”

“But everyone else is going.” Stan flopped his head down on his crossed arms.

“Set the table.  We’ll be eating in about five minutes.”

Stan shuffled to the cabinet, and with exaggerated effort got down two plates and glasses.  With an audible sigh, he set them on the canvas placemats that were always on the table.

Grandpa strained the water from the noodles and then dropped in a slice of butter.  He tossed the noodles, poured in the sauce, and carried the pan over to the table.  “Let’s talk.”

Stan scooped a mound of spaghetti onto his plate and sprinkled on a heavy layer of Parmesan cheese.  “It’s during Spring Break so I won’t miss any school. You filled out the permission form that had all the details. I even left a copy for you to keep  My plane ticket’s been bought.  I can’t back out now.”

“I can’t recall filling out any form.”

“Well, you did.”

“What was I doing when you handed it to me?”

“Washing dishes.  You told me to put the form on the table.  You filled it out and handed it to me.”

“I’d never have signed if I knew how much money was involved.  You can’t go.  I’m sorry.”

Leaving behind his dirty dishes, Stan took the stirs two steps at a time up to his room.  When he slammed the door he knew it would shake the whole house, a violation of the rules, but he didn’t care.

After using a napkin to wipe off his mouth, then refolding it and placing it next to his placement, Grandpa cleaned the kitchen. Like always, he then went into the front room to sit and smoke his pipe, but before lighting up, he unlocked the small safe embedded in the wall behind his desk and pulled out a rubber-banded wad of money.  He carefully counted out the bills.  He locked the safe and went upstairs.

“Can I come in?” he said after knocking on Stan’s door.

“Sure.”

Grandpa extended his right hand. “Here’s the money.”

“Really?”  Stan’s face glowed with surprise.

“Yeah.  I was hoping you’d changed your mind and didn’t want to go all the way to California.  You’ve never been that far from the ranch in all these years. But just in case, I put the money aside.  I’m selling this weekend Misty to Steve Carlson.  I’ll use that money to pay off bills.”

“Grandpa you’re the best!”  Stan, even though he was a little too old for hugs, jumped up off his bed and wrapped his arms around his grandfather.

“One thing, though,” Grandpa said as he stepped away.

“Anything. I’ll do whatever you want.” Stan’s eyes gleamed.

“Have fun. Play well. Be careful.”

Stan nodded. “I will. I’ll even find a way to call if you want.”

Grandpa smiled. “That’d be nice. It would make me feel better knowing that you were safe.”

Stan hugged Grandpa again. “There’s supposed to be a pay phone at the school. I’ll call when we get there the first night, call when we get back from Disneyland, then call right before we leave for the airport.”

“Come downstairs. I bought strawberries and shortcake.”

Stan enjoyed his dessert, even though he understood that his grandpa had intended to give him the money all along. All-in-all, it was an excellent dinner.

Into the Medina

Mary had no trouble following the tour guide as the group wound through the busy city streets of Fes. Even though her hat covered her eyes, just a bit, she could still see the red folder Stan held over his head. She lingered near the rear of the group, which was not a surprise. Every single time the group walked about, even if just for a rest stop, Mary was the first one off, the last one on.

In fact, several times poor Stan had had to go searching for her. She’d still be in her room, or meandering about a market or finishing up a meal. Last one to get off the bus, last one to cross the street, last one to see anything. It made her sad. She was an old woman; the oldest on the tour, but no one pushed her to the front or helped her when she was confused.

By now, after seven days of traveling with her, the group had had it with Mary. Whenever she was missing, comments surfaced about how she was slowing them down, or suggesting that she should be sent back home or that she should be spoken to by someone higher up the chain of command than Stan. But nothing changed her behavior. In fact, the more people that called her name, the more Mary shined.

So here in Fes, after being told it was imperative that the group stay together as it could be dangerous to get lost, Mary hung out at the rear.

The stalls were colorful, filled with food and jewelry and clothing that called tourists to come shop. And even though Mary had been told to keep her eyes on the red folder, all those wonderful things hanging in doorway after doorway beckoned her to enter. Over and over again she stopped, for just a minute…but then a member of the group rounded her up and insisted that she keep moving forward.

Mary stumbled along on the cobblestone sidewalk, her footing challenged by the bumps and cracks. Sometimes she stepped into the street because the way was blocked by a parked car, truck or motorcycle. More motorcycles than anything. They were a nuisance. Not only did you have to get past the angled front wheel, but more treacherous were the kickstands that poked out, creating hazards for seniors like her.

It was hard to keep up. Mary had knee problems and her back ached. The more she had walked on the seven days so far, the slower she had gotten despite doing her best to hurry along. Even when by some strange bit of luck when Mary was near the front, she still fell further and further behind until once again she was at the end of the twisting line of fellow travelers.

After a brief stop to glance into a shop selling nuts and buying a small bag, Mary breathed a sigh of relief when she caught up with Stan who had halted the group before a large stone archway. He told everyone to turn on their “whispers”, cleverly designed amplification boxes that allowed the entire group to hear whatever was being said. Mary loved that link to Stan because it told her which way to turn, what to see, when to step carefully. But it didn’t make her legs go faster.

“It’s going to be crowded in here,” Stan said, “so we have to stick together. No stopping to shop. Keep your eyes pointed ahead. The crowds will jostle you. There are pickpockets that prey on tourists, so keep your hands on purses and wallets. Any questions?”

Mary put her purse strap over her head so that it crossed her body and clutched it firmly to her chest. She never carried all her money, leaving a good chunk behind in the safe in her hotel room, but she didn’t want to lose her ID and other important things zipped into pouches and pockets.

It was noisy and seemingly chaotic where they stood. Thousands of people milled about, coming and going and standing still. In groups of two or three or four. Sometimes alone, leaning against a wall or pillar. Children scampered about, taking off across the nearby square or dashing up the narrow winding streets visible from where she stood.

Hundreds of voices filled the air. High-pitched women’s voices blended with the bass calls of store workers, all vying for her attention. And hordes of souvenir-totters were descending upon the group. Women in burqas holding out sparkling scarves. Men with browned teeth displaying colorful necklaces and silver bracelets.

They held these items in front of Mary, and she so longed to touch them all, to buy something, anything but then Stan warned them to ignore the beggars, to not look at them or nod or smile. To put all normal courtesies aside, for anything that seem like interest would encourage the beggars to follow, to harass to the point of misery. After one final look at his travelers, Stan took off into the square, skillfully winding his way this way and that, taking advantage of any opening large enough for the group of forty to pass through.

Mary worked hard to keep up because the hordes intimidated her. Even when she tried to dodge them, she was pushed left and right, banged into from behind and shoved from the front. Each of the unwanted contacts threw her a bit of kilter, making it harder for her to keep her eye on that red folder.

Stan led them down a narrow corridor. On each side were carts of limp-looking vegetables. Underneath and above and from all around was the smell of rot. Maybe it was from the wood or maybe from the produce, but it was nauseating.

In the meat market slabs of raw meat hung from poles overhead or were layered on wooden tables. Flies buzzed and landed on the meat. Mary pictured the eggs deposited and felt her stomach constrict. She stumbled over an uneven stone and looked down to right herself. Blood pooled under her feet, so Mary stepped around it. The worst of all was when she spied a pair of live chickens being held by their necks as they were weighed on a metal scale. The poor things squawked and tried to flap their wings, but the vendor squeezed harder, immobilizing them. Mary knew they were going to be slaughtered. She hoped it was done humanely, but feared, because of what she’d witnessed so far, that they would not. She shivered as her stomach roiled.

Next came the textile vendors. Huge vats of blackish liquid stuck out into the narrow walkway making it difficult to pass through. The workers pulled out dyed fabrics and twisted each to remove as much dye as possible. It ran down the street, along narrow gutters that overflowed into smelly pools. Mary tried to avoid the pools, but it was hard because she had to focus on the group, which moved on steadily, not seeming to care whether or not she kept up.

Mary found much of the displays and behaviors offensive.  Yes, it was their way of life, their culture, the way things had been done for thousands of years, but it was still disturbing. She felt her nose wrinkle, then thinking that this might offend the residents, willed her face to smile.

After a right turn, the goods being sold changed. Colorful, flowing garments which Stan said were called djellabas hung from what resembled a bit of roof. Mary stopped to finger a baby blue one with colorful trim running down the front. In just those few seconds, Stan had moved on, and she no longer saw the red folder.

She stood on her tiptoes and thought she saw a man from her group turn to the right, so she went that way, stepping into a corridor so narrow that she could reach out and touch the walls on both sides at the same time. But she didn’t see Stan’s folder.

What to do? There didn’t seem to be anything of interest here, so she turned around and backtracked to the street of goods. There were vendors displaying kaftans for women. Beautifully decorated gowns with sparkly trim in the center of the front and on the billowing sleeves. Handmade buttons covered in matching fabric. In each stall selling clothing, at least one man sat sewing. Mary had been taught that sewing was women’s work, but here sat virile men, holding tiny needles between thumb and fingers, stitching in and out, in and out.

It was so mesmerizing that she forgot about keeping up. Until she was shoved aside by a burqa-wearing woman holding a tightly wrapped baby to her chest. That’s when reality called Mary back to the here and now. She hustled up the street, searching for a familiar head of hair or sweater or the red folder.

She thought she recognized someone on a street to the left. Ah, ha! She was right! There stood Stan, a worried look creasing his brow. “Where have you been?” he practically screamed. “I told you to stay with the group. It’s not safe to get separated in here.”

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m at the rear and I can’t keep up.” Tears pooled in her eyes.

Stan moved her to the front of the group which had stopped in front of a vendor selling breads. “Stay close to me,” he said, “no matter what.”

Mary fell into place as the group took off. The street became a steep incline. No longer selling clothes or food, the venders displayed tourist crap that called her name. Oh, the postcards! The porcelain! The jewelry! The figurines! The scarves! Mary wished that Stan would let them shop, but he plowed ahead, an previously unfriendly couple staying behind her, pushing her forward.

Stan turned left and right. He climbed higher and then followed a street that dropped at a steep decline. The vendors now sold sweets. Strange-looking flat cookies and pretzel-shaped pastries covered with flies! Nuts of all kinds. Some glazed with sugar. Some roasted. Some still in shells.

Stan stopped to allow the group to taste the sugar-coated almonds. Mary didn’t like them, but many in her group did. Several bought some to bring home.

Mary wouldn’t buy any of the food she’d seen. For one, there was no one at home for her to give them to. For another, how could she gift someone food that flies had been sitting on right before being scooped up? It just wasn’t right.

They moved on. To the right. Up a series of steps. To the left. Under a wooden archway. Looking up was a confused mass of nailed boards holding everything up. To a Californian like Mary who was used to earthquakes that took down buildings, it didn’t look safe.

They entered a low doorway. Even five-foot Mary had to bend over. Inside were bathrooms that they were told to use and then to sit on benches that lined the walls. Hanging everywhere were carpets of intricate designs and beautiful, rich colors. Shortly after the group was settled, the sales pitch began. Carpet after carpet was unrolled on the floor. Each was uniquely beautiful. The salesmen promised that they could be washed. That they wouldn’t fade or shrink or bleed, but Mary wondered how that could be possible. Supposedly each was made by a woman working alone for months or years.

It was tiresome sitting there because the pitch didn’t end until several in her group began buying things. Each was taken into a side room and then emerged bearing wrapped packages, each tied with twine. Then they were allowed to leave.

Back into the winding streets. The crowd had thickened. Within a few blocks Stan and his red folder were out of sight. Mary stood on her tiptoes, but not only couldn’t she see it, she couldn’t see a familiar face or jacket. She was alone. In a maze of narrow streets. Being jostled on all sides.

Before they had gotten off the bus, Stan had cautioned the group that it would be easy to get lost. That the streets wound this way and that. That there was no logic that would allow a lost person to find their way out. He had cautioned them with the necessity of staying together. Mary hadn’t believed him. Until she entered the Medina. It was being in a war zone with sights and sounds assaulting her, confusing her.

Mary now understood that she could never find her way out on her own. At first she had tried to memorize the directions they had followed, how many rights and lefts and straight aheads, but in time, there were so many turns, so many streets, that she was totally confused. And possibly lost.

She was sure she was close to the carpet store. Maybe just a block away. She believed they could help her, so she went back the way she had just come. But at the first intersection she came to, Mary paused. Had she come from the right? The left? Straight ahead? Mary didn’t know. Tears began to drip down her cheeks. She pulled a tissue out of her coat pocket.

Mary peered about hoping to find something familiar. To the right were carpets leaning against a wall. That must be it! So she hurried that way. But no, there was no low door. Just a stall like many she’d seen.

Thinking that this must be the right street because so far, many carpets were being sold here, Mary continued that way. Vendors to the left and right, but no low doorway. She went on.

Carpets changed to shoes and leather bags. A stench filled the air. She thought it was from the leather being processed but she didn’t stop to ask. Mary knew her group had not passed this way, so she searched for a friendly face. Someone who might help her.

The men scared her even though she couldn’t justify those feelings. There was something about the determined way the vendors stared at her, as if she were a sandwich to be devoured. The women weren’t an option because they were all in too much of a hurry. She tried stopping one, but the woman shouted at her and slapped Mary’s hand away.

Mary stumbled forward, staring beseechingly at one face after another. She knew time had passed since she had become separated from her group, but how much time? She didn’t know. A fear surfaced that she was so incredibly lost in the Medina that she’d never get out. That her group would board the bus and leave without her.

They almost left her once. In Madrid they had toured an amazingly beautiful monastery. Mary had been intrigued by the tapestries and stained glass windows. The gold figurines behind the altar. She knelt to pray. She closed her eyes and thought of her kids at home, hoping that her grandkids were doing okay. That her cat was well.

When she opened her eyes, her group was gone. Mary hustled down the center aisle and out the huge double doors. Followed the sidewalk to where they had disembarked from the bus. Just as she arrived, the doors closed. Mary screamed and walked as fast as she could. Someone must have heard her or seen her because the doors opened!

What if the bus had driven off? She didn’t know the name of the hotel. Didn’t speak Spanish. Didn’t know how to hail a taxi. Thank goodness she was saved.

But now she was in Morocco, a totally unfamiliar country, language, culture. She wasn’t in a big city where there might be police officers who could help. There wasn’t a store that beckoned lost travelers. Plus she was lost in a maze so confusing, so terrifying that even if she had a phone, she couldn’t tell anyone where she was.

Mary stumbled along, tears streaming down her face. Her arms and legs felt rubbery. Just as she was about to give up, a boy wearing a soccer jersey appeared before her. He had a huge smile on his face. His eyes sparkled. Mary smiled back.

“Do you speak English?” she asked.

“Yes,” he said. “I study English in school.”

Mary sighed. She understood him perfectly! “I am lost. Can you help me?”

The boy nodded. Her took her hand and led her in and out, down and up, left and right. Ahead appeared the huge square and the stone gate! “Thank you,” she said. “You saved me.”

“Let me walk you to where your bus will stop,” he said. “I will wait there with you until your group appears.”

He led Mary to a low wall and indicated that she should sit. It felt good to be in the sun, out of the dark maze. Here the crowds were further away, giving her a chance to breathe, to relax.

The boy stayed with her, as he said he would, until Stan appeared, the blessed red folder over his head. Mary cried out, held her hands in front, beseechingly. “You left me behind,” she cried. “I was scared.”

Stan glowered at her. “Mary, this is not the first time you’ve fallen behind. Why didn’t you stay near me?”

“When you left the carpet store I was the last one out. You left me,” she said. “This nice young man helped me. If not for him, I’d still be inside, lost.”

Stan smiled at the boy. “Thanks for your help,” he said as he handed the boy a coin. “Mary, follow me. Don’t look inside stores. Stare at the folder. Only the folder. Understand?”

Mary nodded and did as she was told.

Back in the hotel she reflected on her narrow escape. Who was at fault? Herself? Surely not. She had tried to keep up. She had told Stan at the beginning of the tour that she was slow. It must be his fault, right?

Whoever was to blame, Mary swore to herself that from now on, she’d stay with Stan. The scare of being left behind scared her terribly.

 

 

Kraznir Complications: A Resolution

We rode into the forest, far enough to avoid capture by either army. We dropped to the ground and lay amongst leaves and needles. We didn’t worry about our horse making noise, for they were trained to be still.

Little John pointed and waggled his fingers as Nix had done.

“Bae von ox nae,” I whispered while thinking of Kraznir’s army, “bae von ox nae.” And then we waited. And waited.

Both armies remained frozen. Because there was no movement, no blink of an eye, no leaning one direction or another, there was no way to determine if the spellbind had worked.

Time passed and we became hungry. “I’m going hunting,” Little John whispered. “I think I saw rabbit tracks.”

Doughty fell asleep. My eyes grew tired, but I kept them focused on the armies, looking for change. My head fell to my chest, then I forced it upright. Over and over I battled my body.

“I caught one” Little John said as he held up a good-sized brown rabbit. “Can you get a fire going while I skin it?’

I scooped together leaves, then sticks, then searched for larger branches. When I felt there was enough, I held my hands over the leaves, closed my eyes and thought “fire” for I didn’t know the actual spell. Imagine my surprise when a flame burst forth from the heart of the leaves!

I placed several sticks on top, then when they began to smolder, even more.

“Looks great,” Doughty said. “Add the bigger branches. That should work.”

Just when flames rose to shoulder height, Little John appeared with the rabbit on a spit. He held it over the flames, just out of reach so it wouldn‘t char. Soon the smell of cooking meat tickled our noses. My mouth filled with saliva in anticipation.

“There,” Doughty said, “it’s done.” He tore off a leg, bit into it, and smacked his lips with pleasure. “Wonderful.”

We enjoyed our meal. It was not the best one we’d ever had, but since we’d not had meat for the days of our journey, it was exactly what we needed.

“Can I have some?” an unfamiliar voice asked.

Doughty jumped up, pulling his dagger out of his belt. “Who are you?”

“Mastix, sir.” The man wore Kraznir’s army’s uniform. “I’m hungry. If there’s even a tiny bite left, I’d love to eat it.”

I tore off a piece, gave it to him, then watched him slowly chew with his head held back and his eyes closed. “Um, that’s delicious.”

“So, is there something else you want?” Doughty asked.

“A bath, clean clothes and a soft bed.”

“Okay,” I said. “But why did you approach us? Shouldn’t you be afraid of being seen with us?”

The man laughed. “You’re my friends, right? Can I go home with you?’

Little John laughed as movement surrounded us. In front of us stood Kraznir’s entire army, officers and lowly men-in-arms, all with wistful looks on their faces. “Your spell worked,” he said to me with a wink and a grin. “The war is over.”

“For now,” Doughty said. “Only for now.”

“We have no more food,” I said, “but if you ride with us back to Siln and swear allegiance to King Taden, you can live in peace in Siln.”

An officer stepped forward and bowed. “Yes. My men and I will gladly follow you. We have yearned for the freedom and prosperity of Siln, but had no way of getting there. You have offered us everything we’ve dreamt of. Freedom instead of torture, instead of forever being indebted to Kraznir. For that we are grateful.”

Doughty stood and held out his hand. The officer extended his. Once grasped, Doughty pulled the man to his chest in what was considered a bond of trust.

“We’d better leave now,” Little John said. “if we ride hard, we’ll be home by tomorrow night.”

My heart felt light. My spells had worked. No lives had been lost. No injuries incurred. Not a single soldier from Siln had deserted, but the entire army Kraznir had sent was now happily singing their way to Siln.

I knew that from now on I would no longer be a magician-in-training for I had saved Siln’s men from harm. Kraznir, for now, was no longer a complication.

Kraznir Complications: We Ride Off

I didn’t want to get near an active battleground, but I had to follow orders. I mounted Ruthie and set off, trying to stay as near the middle of the pack as possible, thinking that if arrows should fall, I would be somewhat protected.

We rode in as complete silence as one hundred could go. The jingle of harness had been reduced by padding and the iron shoes wrapped in cloth. Even so there are human sounds of coughing and sneezing and mumbling and whispering. Horse breathing, snorting, farting, pooping and peeing. But we were quiet enough not to attract any unwanted attention, for no orcs or wargs or soldiers rushed us.

When night fell Captain Nix commanded an invisibility ward over all, human and horse alike. I had never tried to cloak so many, but I gave it a try. I closed my eyes and pictured our group, than whispered, “Ing spe do nably.” I felt a tingle, but not a rush of magic, so I was unsure whether or not it had worked.

Nix nodded, then turned away. I guess just chanting the ward made him happy. At least he was away from me, which lessoned my anxiety.

The night was long and cold. None of us had warm enough cloaks and since we were traveling, none had blankets either. I rolled up in my cloak, like all the others, and rested my head in a pile of leaves, but no matter how long I lay there, I never slept.

In the morning we rode on. When we came to the river I looked about for the blue dragon, but Pineki was nowhere to be seen.  Doughty thought maybe she was afraid of the large group, for after all, she was only a little dragon.

Before I rode into the water, I watched for sign of crocodiles. I knew that they were upstream, and we had not seen any when we crossed her before, I was cautious. After fifty riders made it safely, I urged Ruthie in and across as quickly as she could manage. In fact, all of us made I without me employing any kind of ward, which was good as I knew none that kept away crocs.

Nix called a halt so that we could dry our mounts as well as ourselves. I removed Ruthie’s gear then walked her to an unoccupied patch of grass. She immediately got to her knees, then rolled onto her back. I laughed at her antics. I so wanted to roll about as well, but I felt that nix would disapprove.

We ate a bit of biscuit and refilled our skins with fresh water. Doughty, Little John and I found a quiet spot away from the others.

“I’m worried,” Little John said. “Nothing has challenged us. Nothing has slowed us, not human or beast.”

Doughty nodded. “By now something would have heard us coming. It’s impossible to move a group this size without attracting attention, so it’s logical to assume that there will be battle soon.”

“What should I do? I’m useless with sword and spear.”

Little John snickered. “You and me both. The one advantage I have is size. I can slink under the bellies of their horses and cut cinches. Then we’ll laugh when Kraznir’s entire army slides off their mounts!”

I rested my chin in my hands. “I’ve been learning some new wards. There’s an invincibility one, but I haven’t mastered it yet. Maybe I’ll set that one up when we get ready to move.”

That’s when  the call came to mount, so I saddled Ruthie and as I rubbed her muzzle, I said, “Arq ve naw. Arq se baw.” I repeated it three times, a powerful magical number, hoping that by following the norms, the ward would work.

Kraznir Complications: Preparations Begin

Doughty shook his head then wiped his mouth from which stew oozed down his chin. “Magic is important, yes. But you also need to know how to fight so as to support the army in battle.”

He was right even though I didn’t want to admit it. So I didn’t complain when after lunch I learned how to ride with a spear. It was hard to balance while bouncing up and down, at the same time trying to keep the point of the shaft aimed at the heart of a dummy on the other side of the corral. I rode again and again, stopping only when permitted, but despite hard work and countless attempts, my skills never improved.

Feeling quite useless, I returned to the barracks for a bath and change of clothes, then sat in the common area waiting for my companions. None of them showed up, so when fatigue took over, I went to bed.

 

Rumors spread that a force was being sent to counter Kraznir’s army which was thought to be assembling just outside Hagg Forest, too close to Siln to be ignored. Archers, crow bow wielders, horsemen and all varieties of wizards were to travel, forthwith.

Since I had no fighting skills and limited magic, I figured I would remain inside the castle grounds, but oh, no, that was not to be. An emissary from King Taden appeared in the barracks where I lived with a dozen other females late one evening. “Touchfire?” he called.

I rose and stood at attention, as dictated by protocol. The King commands you to prepare to join the battle force. Pack your bags and head to the stables.”

“But I’m useless! I’m just a trainee and a poor one at that!”

“Do as commanded or I have been instructed to remove you to the dungeons.” He waved his right hand and two heavily humungous soldiers entered.

I knew by their armor that they belonged to the King’s Guard, the mostly highly skilled soldiers in the kingdom. There was no way I could fight them and live, so I bowed my compliance. Once they were gone, I pulled my stuff-bag out from under my bed and shoved in clothes appropriate for travel: a heavy cape, a split-skirt, winter boots and two tops, one long-sleeved and one Sherpa-lined sweater.

The weather had turned while I was training. The days were chilly and the nights downright cold. I would need whatever protection my garments would provide.

I slung my bag over my shoulder and trundled to the stables.  Ruthie was brushed, fed and saddled. I lashed my bag in place, then stood by her muzzle until instructed to mount.

We were all agitated, riders and mounts alike. None of us knew what to expect. Would there be a battle in which we died? Or would someone negotiate a treaty to stop a useless war? I prayed for the treaty. I didn’t want any more of my friends lost and I certainly didn’t want to die either.

The pounding of boots approached the doors. When I heard them coming, I thrust my shoulders back and stood at attention. Captain Nix, wearing his best blue uniform, strode in with a sneer signaling what he thought of his so-called army. “Well, well,” he snickered. “How can a bunch of misfits defeat Kraznir’s well-trained armies?” He stopped in front of a short, stubby scout named Will.

“I don’t know, sir,” he croaked.

Nix sauntered down the line of us, flicking dust of the shoulder of one, slapping the back of another, harassing each person he passed. Until he stood before me. Then he laughed. No, guffawed. A loud, deep, gaggle of sounds erupting from the bottom of his chest. “What good are you?”

I cast my eyes downward to show deference.

“Answer me.”

“I can do a little magic.”

Nix turned to a soldier standing behind him. “Check with the quartermaster. I don’t recall asking for someone who can do ‘a little magic’. I wanted a master magician.”

The soldier bowed so low that his chin would have touched his knees were it not for his armor strapped tightly to his chest. He turned without saluting and left.

We stood at attention while Nix paced in front of us. He fiddled with a harness on Athor’s horse, the saddle on Will’s and had just reached toward Ruthie, my trusted mount, when the soldier returned. I let out the breath I’d been holding. If Nix’s fingers had gotten any closer, Ruthie would have snapped them off. I would then have been executed as a traitor.

The soldier bowed. “She’s coming with us,” he said.

“By whose orders?”

“Taden’s, sir.”

“But she’s useless!”

“Taden says no other magicians are available. They’ve been dispersed to the outer villages for weeks now. All except for Old Oscar whose blind and this one. Taden says Oscar remains and this one goes.”