Georgia Peach

Georgia, a peachy little girl

One fine day wandered far from her home.

With mammoth twist and a single twirl,

Lost the dirt path on which she did roam.

 

No worries, though, for this saucy child

Did spot a cottage deep in the wood.

The sun shone down on roses gone wild,

Made Georgia forget to be good.

 

She knocked upon the ancient door,

Then flounced her golden, curly hair:

Listened for footsteps soft on the floor,

Thought of whom might live in tiny lair.

 

When no one came to see her inside,

She turned the small knob with trembling hand,

Opened the door wearing a smile wide.

Alas, no one there to take a stand.

 

Georgia stepped into kitchen small,

Noticed three platters brimming full,

And glasses barely two fingers tall,

In which was liquid brown and dull.

 

She took a taste from the biggest one.

Georgia gagged: fought to keep it down.

“This stuff stinks,” she burbled. “I am done.”

Her face now covered with ugly frown.

 

Next she spied the family’s stuffed chairs

Crimson and gold, with tassels of blue.

Nestled under the circular stairs.

Georgia sat, fell.  “This was not new!”

 

With achy bones, she climbed the first step,

Heard nary a sound from man nor beast.

Up she went; where the family slept.

Miniature beds spaced most to least.

 

Exhausted from her explorations,

Georgia moved them all together.

Soon she forgot all aspirations

And dreamt of sunny, pleasant weather.

 

While adrift on misty isle of cloud,

Georgia snored and tossed all about.

She didn’t hear voices clear and loud.

“Someone’s here,” said Dad, “there is no doubt.”

 

The family of three, with startled eyes,

Noticed empty glass and broken chair.

“Who’s in the house?” said the mother wise.

“I’ll find out,” Father said.  “I’ll take great care.”

 

Father first, Mother and then the Son

Crept up the stairs and looked all around.

“There she is,” said Father. “That’s the one!”

“She must have thought she wouldn’t be found.”

 

“Let the child sleep,” said Mother dear.

“She seems to be sweet and innocent.”

“But Mom,” said young son, “I do but fear

my bed’s broke.  For this she must repent.”

 

Father smiled, “She’s but a girl, no harm done.”

“Now come, let’s go and let her dream on.”

After they ate, outside they did run

And played the silly game, Name That Pun.

 

Georgia awoke, stretched, and then stood,

Fluffed her gold hair and straightened her dress.

Down she walked, and into the big wood.

Thought, I’ll remember this fine address.

 

Found the dirt path on which she did roam.

With a single twist and mammoth twirl,

She luckily found her way home.

Georgia, a peachy little girl.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Night Terrors

            The large dun horse runs full tilt down a rock-strewn hill, its hooves sliding, slipping, searching for purchase which it finds, then loses then finds again as it runs harder, faster, its eyes huge, lather forming on its withers, its sides and foam dripping from its mouth, its tongue dangling to one side as its sides heave and heave. The headlong descent to the swiftly moving river below doesn’t slow its run, doesn’t ease its fears but rather amplifies them for the roar is deafening as the current bangs against tree limbs hanging so low their branches dip into the melee.

            She tries to stop, but her forward momentum is so strong, so impulsive, so rushed that her hooves slide through the muddy banks and into the river she jumps with a mighty splash. The water is too deep and she flails, legs trying valiantly to swim, to coordinate, to come up with a rhythm that will keep her afloat, but its all in vain as she is swept downriver along with branches and other debris.

            Her head is barely above water and her breathing is ragged but still she fights, her hooves hoping to touch bottom despite knowing that they will not, they cannot for the river is deep and the current keeps sucking her under. Downriver she goes, crashing against huge boulders that suck her breath away, that hurt her legs, her ribs, her neck.

            Kicking and kicking she never gives us, never succumbs to despair that would pull her under even when her mighty head dips below the surface and all she sees is a muddy swirl. Sides heaving she fights the fight of her life, not giving in for a minute, a second.

            In front of her, all around her a roar begins. Quiet at first if a roar could be called quiet but as she fights, it intensifies as she nears a bend in the river, a turn she hopes will allow her weary legs to strike mud, sand, gravel anything.

            No more boulders ahead. She has hope. Her spirits life, until she notices that the roar is so loud that she hears no bird, no insect, no bubble or quiet gurgle. Roar and more roar. Growing louder as the current pulls her forward toward an end. A drop-off. A precipice inot which she knows she will fall.

            And so she gives up. Her exhausted legs stop churning. Her head slumps. Her heart stills. She is prepared to die and million deaths for she knows what comes next. She’s seen if before. Heard it before. Lost companions before. But with one last burst of energy she screams signaling her acceptance of death as she plunges over the edge.

            Down and down she falls carried by the torrent, deep into the mist, the swirl, tossed over and under until she does not know which way is up or down or sideways. So deep that there is no sun, no light, no joy until there is peace. She quits fighting knowing that her life is no more.

            A sudden overwhelming peace fills her. A lightness of spirit. She has come to her afterlife. She will run with her ancestors. Romp across stubbly fields in joyous rapture.

            Until she opens her massive eyes and realizes the she is being carried along with a mild current, heading toward a sandy shore. She fights just enough to get her head out of the water, just enough to be able to breathe, to see a blue sky. To feel the sun on her shoulders, to hear birds singing softly overhead. In and out she breathes. In and out.

            With effort she struggles to her feet and stands for fear of collapse. She raises her weary head and sees grasses just a few steps ahead. She knows she must eat. Must restore energy lost and so she makes her way to the first patch and nibbles gingerly as if it might not be real. Nibbles more and more as she moves away from the river.

            Natural instincts take over and she grazes calmly, naturally as she’s done all her life. As her ancestors have done. Ripping out one nourishing morsel after another as the roar of the terrifying falls slowly recedes into the distance.

            Satisfied, she shakes her head removing the last of the water and she neighs calling for her kind. Nothing at first so she heads toward a sand dune, a tiny hill and makes her way to the top being careful, ever so careful where each hoof goes.

            At the crest a beam of light falls across her back and it warms her inside and out. With a sigh she plods forward, one step after another. She nibbles the choicest bits now that her hunger is satisfied. She neighs again and waits for something. She knows what it is, but will an answering call come?

            Far to the west she hears a faint call. With the sun going with her she heads toward what she hopes will be a welcome. Serenity fills her for she has survived. The tragedy will soon move to the recesses of her mind, but will never be forgotten. Not entirely. Not for many years.

The Teacher’s Report

Mrs. Adams gripped a math test, correcting mistake after mistake.  Her oversized glasses slipped down her nose making it difficult for her to see the backwards numbers. Even after pushing them back into place, the child’s writing didn’t become any clearer.

She picked up another paper, placed marks here and there, sighing as she worked. The next paper, that of Shelly Winters, was one hundred percent correct. Mrs. Adams wrote a giant Excellent at the top in purple ink.

A smile crossed her face until she saw the next paper in the pile: Billy Chalmers. Something about that boy made her curly gray hair stand on end. She tried to like him, but it was difficult.

With furrowed brow she found Billy slumped in his desk chair. She sighed, knowing that his paper would be riddled with errors. She hated using all that red ink. No matter how many corrections she made, Billy made no improvement.

Mrs. Adams was not known to be kind. Her reputation was one of distributing cruel remarks and harsh with punishment toward those who offended her sensibilities. This was not a good quality in a second grade teacher. In fact, her personality worked in reverse: her students did not prosper and none of them developed a love of learning while in her classroom.

Students learned because they were terrified of the scathing words that signified Mrs. Adams’ displeasure.  She never smiled, never offered praise or compliments on work well done.  There was never any laughter in her classroom: students were to be seated quietly, at all times.

The only student who seemed to escape criticism was little Shelly. She was a bright, pleasant child, always clean and neatly dressed. Her mother was also the School Board President which was probably why Mrs. Adams never directed her wrath at the child.

Billy was not so lucky. His nose poured no matter the season. His clothes were torn and faded, his shoes had holes in the soles. His hair was greasy tangles that fell below his ears. Breath? Repulsive. There was nothing about Billy that motivated her to want to teach him. In fact, he repelled and disgusted her.

So when Mrs. Adams looked about the classroom and finding the student she sought, she commanded, “William Chalmers, come here immediately!”

“Yes, ma’am,” Billy said as he shuffled to the front of the room.  As he stood next to his teacher’s desk, his downcast eyes begged for kindness..

“The answer to question number three is incorrect.  Go back and fix it,” Mrs. Adams rumbled.  She thrust Billy’s paper into his face, then without a word of encouragement waved him off and then returned to correcting the remaining tests.

Billy did not leave the side of her desk.  Despite his fear of angering her, Billy mumbled, “But I don’t know the answer.”

“What did you say, young man?”

“I don’t know the answer, Mrs. Adams.”

She stared at Billy as she put down the pile of tests and picked up her spanking ruler in one svelte move. His eyes widened as the ruler rose far over his head, then came down with lightning speed on his left shoulder, striking with so much force that Billy fell to the floor.

“Get up off that floor, Mr. Chalmers, and quit sniveling.” She watched as a tearful Billy pushed himself into a standing position, picked up his now wrinkled paper, and turned toward his desk.  “Do not approach this desk until you have completed the assignment.”

She did not see the tears coursing down his face, or the embarrassed flush to his cheeks.  Her focus had returned to the remaining tests, resuming her glower as she scanned each one.

By the time Billy was seated his tears of pain had turned to tears of anger. “I hate Mrs. Adams.  I hate Mrs. Adams.  I hate Mrs. Adams,” Billy mumbled over and over.  He could barely see the numbers on the paper through his tears, but he picked up his pencil and erased his previous calculations.  He reworked the problems, getting the same wrong answers.  So he did them again, and again, and again, checking the clock now and then hoping that the time to go home would soon arrive.

After the fifth attempt Billy was pretty sure he had the right answer, so he sheepishly walked to his teacher’s desk and handed her the paper.  She said not a word as she took the paper from his outstretched hand. Not expecting anything other than an insult, he simply returned to his desk and sat silently, like all his classmates.

“Students,” Mrs. Adams screeched, interrupting the strained silence.  “Please put away your pencils and books.”  In unison all desktops opened, materials were put away, and tops were gently closed.  “Stand.”  Mrs. Adams pushed her bulky body out of her chair, stood, and walked slowly down Billy’s row until she stood next to his desk.  “Give this note to your parents when you get home,” she barked as she handed Billy an envelope.

“Yes, Mrs. Adams,” Billy sniveled.

“Class dismissed.”

Billy streamed out of the room as his classmates joined the throngs pouring into the hall, and out the front door.  He walked the blocks home behind a couple of boys who lived on the same block.

When he got to his house, without saying goodbye, Billy walked in the door.  His dad was in the kitchen, cutting celery into tiny pieces.  He smiled when he saw his son.

“Hi, Billy.  Did you have a good day today?”

“No. Mrs. Adams doesn’t like me.”

“I’m sure Mrs. Adams likes all her students,” he said as he scraped the pieces into a bowl.

“Then why was I the only one she yelled at?”

As he added in cream of celery soup, his dad said, “Maybe she’s trying to help you learn.”

“If she wanted me to learn, she’d be nicer,” Billy said, brightening for the first time that day. “I liked First grade a lot.  I did real well because my teacher made things fun.”

“School isn’t supposed to be fun.”

“But if Mrs. Adams smiled it would be better.”

“That’s the way it is, Billy.  You don’t always get nice teachers.  Mrs. Adams is a good teacher.  Her students always get the best awards.”

“Oh,” Billy said as he handed his dad the envelope. “She sent this note home.  I think she wants you to call.” Billy stood nervously rubbing his left shoe on top of his right one while his dad opened the envelope.

Mr. Chalmers pulled out a folded piece of binder paper.  He looked it over carefully.  A huge smile lit his eyes as he said, “Congratulations!  You got an A+ on this Math test! You should hang this on the refrigerator for your mom to see when she gets home.”

Disbelievingly, Billy took the paper from his dad.  Written in purple ink at the top of the page was not only the grade, but also a huge happy face.  Billy held his paper as if it were made of fine china, pulled a magnet from off the refrigerator door, and pinned his paper in place.

He skipped outside to the back yard where he ran in circles screaming, “Yes!” as he pumped his fists into the air.

 

Learning Curve

She’d always heard that Catholic girls go wild when they enter college, but she didn’t believe it. That didn’t mean that Jessie wouldn’t wonder what would happen once her classes began in the fall. Would she adhere to the morals and values she’d had drilled into her head? Or would she date recklessly, use drugs and drink until sloppy drunk?

On her first day at Chabot College Jessie stepped on campus with her nerves a tingle. Everywhere she looked were couples walking hand-in-hand with serene looks on their faces, while others sat on benches, walls and lawns, with arms and legs entwined. A few leaned against trees with lips locked and bodies pressed firmly against one another.

Which would she be? A wanton hussy? A tender lover? A lonely spinster? All she knew and hoped was that someone, some nice young man would find her interesting. Years ago she had reconciled herself that, because she wasn’t pretty, not even comely, but a frumpy, old-lady-like ultra conservative spinster, she would be single for the rest of her life.

Jessie learned the names of her classmates. The easiest to know were the outspoken types who knew everything and wanted their voices to be the only ones heard. The most challenging were the silent, but giggly cheerleader-types with skinny bodies, lanky legs and long hair well past shoulders. There were some like Jessie, not many, with limp hair, blotchy complexions and puffy bodies, and they were the ones who always sat alone. She thought about joining them, but realized that even at her current age you were still defined by your friends. She was socially awkward, but didn’t want to hang out with her kind. She wanted to establish a new identity: that of a smart, datable woman.

Months passed. Despite using her mother-taught sewing skills she created more fashionable clothes, nothing changed in her social status. Day after day Jessie ate alone, walked alone, spent study hours alone in the library or in some quiet alcove. While her life was unaltered, that of her classmates changed. Pregnancies blossomed as winter neared. Were those the wanton hussies she’d heard about? Catholic girls gone wild?

Jessie wanted to feel what it was like to be held in a tight embrace, to be kissed tenderly, passionately, until her body responded in the way she’d read about in books. Maybe not to the point of losing her virginity, but it would be nice to come close.

Second semester a George Atwood sat next to her in Advanced Calculus. He was a good-looking guy, but not what you’d call handsome. Not built like a football player with broad shoulders, but more like a golfer. He smiled at her and said hi every class period.

One day he slipped her a note like kids did in high school. When Jessie opened hers she discovered a quiz which George must have copied from a magazine. He had listed a variety of activities and placed a box in front of each. She was supposed to check all those she liked and then return the note.

This was exciting! A man was interested in her!

Jessie checked off bowling, walking, reading, movies. She didn’t know what spelunking was and didn’t like going underwater, so diving and snorkeling were out. She didn’t want to swim because she was ashamed of her lumpy body. She did mark sports because she enjoyed playing soccer, baseball and had bowled for many years, and she loved watching almost any sport on television.

When George arrived the next day  Jessie slid the note to him, then waited to see his reaction. His face remained blank, his focus on the professor.

Jessie’s heart was broken before it ever had the chance to fall in love. She sat with downcast eyes, struggling to contain a fountain of tears. Sadness sat on her shoulders like a huge weight.

But after class, instead of rushing out like he usually did, George lingered. He smiled shyly as he rubbed one toe on the carpet. “Want to go on a date?”

Jessie smiled. “Yes.”

Without saying a word, George placed his hand on her back and led her outside the building. “Are you free Saturday?”

She nodded.

“What would you like to do? See a movie? Go bowling? Go for a ride? We could go to Garin Park and hike.”

“Garin Park would be nice,” she said. “I’ve never been there.”

“Great. Do you want me to pick you up or would you prefer to meet there?”

“I don’t have a car, so how about you pick me up? If you tell me what you like to eat, I’ll pack a picnic lunch.”

They exchanged information, then said goodbye. Jessie smiled all through the rest of the day. She smiled on the way home on the bus. But when she walked through the front door, her mother gave her a funny look and then the cross examination began.

“Why’s that smile on your face? What have you done?” her mother demanded.

“Nothing wrong,” Jessie said. “A nice guy asked me on a date. We’re going to Garin Park.” She wasn’t prepared for the snicker that erupted from her mother’s lips.

“You’ve got to be kidding. Any guy who dates you is only looking for one thing and you’d better not give it to him.”

Jessie’s cheeks burned. She knew what her mom was implying and there was no way she was doing that. She’d never been kissed, but she wasn’t so naïve as to not understand the implications of going further. “Nothing’s going to happen. It’s a picnic and a hike. That’s it.”

“I’d better meet him first,” her mother said.

“Don’t worry. He’s picking me up.”

The next two days Jessie worried about what to wear, what to fix for lunch, and what would happen when her parents met George. She’d seen movies where the parents were rude, embarrassing both the daughter and the date. She was sure her parents would be horrendous.

When Saturday arrived, she put on her best jeans and a royal blue Warriors sweatshirt. She brushed her shoulder-length hair a thousand times, convinced that when she was finished, it was smoother and shinier. Jessie fixed ham sandwiches with mayo, tomatoes, pickles, and a slice of Swiss cheese.  She put two cans of soda in a bag along with two chocolate chip cookies she’d made that morning.

Jessie stood by the window, hiding behind the sheer curtains that were supposed to keep prying eyes from spying inside. As the time grew nearer for George to arrive, beads of sweat popped out on her forehead. When ten o’clock arrived and he wasn’t there, Jessie sighed, believing she had been stood up. Just as she turned to go to her room and change into her sweats, a recently washed gray Hyundai Sonata parked in front of her house. George emerged with neatly combed hair, a Chabot College sweatshirt and clean black jeans.

He wasn’t handsome, but pleasant-looking. Jessie’s heart began beating rapidly and she found it hard to breath.

Just as George was reaching for the bell, Jessie opened the door with a smile on her face and then escorted him to the front room where her parent lay in wait. Neither responded to his polite greeting, instead they glowered as if he was evil incarnate.

“So,” her dad said, “why are you taking her on a date?”

George stammered a bit before responding, “Jessie’s nice and smart.”

“But she’s ugly,” her dad said as he shrugged his shoulders. “There’s only one thing a guy would want, and that’s not going to happen.  If you know what’s good for you, you’ll walk out and never come back.”

George grabbed Jessie’s hand tightly in his own. “I don’t think of Jessie that way. She’s a friend, someone I’d like to get to know better.” With that, he led her out of the house and into the car. “Wow, that was intense.”

“I’m sorry. I was afraid he would act like that, but I hoped not.”

“Listen,” George said as he drove down Mission Boulevard, “if you’re uncomfortable being with me, we can call this off. I’ll take you back home.”

“No,” she said as she brushed her hand against his arm. “I want to be with you. Really, I do.” She folded her hands primly in her lap and stared at her fingers. “I mean, I should tell you that I’ve never dated before.”

His smile was so perfect, so beautiful that Jessie knew she had made the right choice. “It’s going to be alright,” he said as he paid the fee at the toll booth. “We’re going to have a great time. As friends. Right?’

All went well. They found an empty picnic table right away. George ate everything, even praising the cookies when Jessie said she’d made them. They talked, shared stories, and discussed Calculus problems, which was a bit weird as Jessie’d never talked about schoolwork with a guy before.

“Let’s go for a walk,” George said after they’d stowed the bag in the trunk. “There’s a nice trail that encircles the park. If we’re lucky, we’ll see deer.”

The trail encircled a little pond where dragonflies hovered, their wings gossamer pastel colors. They wound their way into the hills, talking about the blue sky dotted with cumulus clouds and the possibility of rain. About the flowers that in bloom, typical for California. The giant moths and even a herd of cows grazing near an apple orchard.

The further away from the parking lot they got, the fewer people they saw. The branches of trees formed a canopy overhead, cooling the warming air and silencing sounds of insects. When no more people were about, when there were no sounds of laughter, kids playing or conversation, George led Jessie deep into a copse of trees. He leaned against a sturdy trunk and he pulled her to his chest. “I really like you,” he said as he brushed his hand over her hair. “You’re smart and kind and thoughtful.”

“Thanks,” she said as she felt her cheeks turn crimson. “I like you too.”

His breath tickled her neck as he gently kissed her, over and over.

Jessie had never felt loved, not from her parents who had ridiculed her for her whole life, calling her ugly, dumb, stupid, idiot, and many other terms that she preferred not to think about.  There had never been a boyfriend who held her tight and whispered in her ear. Never even a pet cat or dog to cuddle with on long, lonely nights.

George was the first and his words filled her insides, making her feel light as air.

When his lips met hers, she kissed him back. His lips weren’t squishy, but firm. Not too firm. His breath hinted of chocolate chip cookies, a bit sweet but also bitter. His arms enfolded her waist, pulling her into his chest.

She responded in kind, not sure if she was doing it right, but when George intensified the pressure of his lips, Jessie began to question the safety of her situation, nestled in this hidden cove.

She pushed back, trying to put some distance between them, but George pulled her tight against him. He ran his right hand up under her shirt, rubbing her back in circles that at first were soft and enticing, but soon became firm and painful.

“Stop,” she said as she took a step backward. “I don’t like this.”

George increased his grip around her waist until she was smashed against him, barely able to breathe. His hand undid her bra and then moved to her chest.

“Stop. I don’t want this.”

“Yes, you do,” he said. “You must have dreamt about this. I’m going to be your first. You’ll love it.” He bent over and kissed her breasts. His tongue made her insides warm, but at the same time she was repulsed. When his hands went under the waistband of her jeans and began rubbing back and forth, back and forth, she tried again to disengage.

“Stop,” she yelled. Salty tears streamed down her cheeks and along the edges of their compressed lips. Her sobs escaped despite the increased pressure he applied as she planted her hands on his chest and pushed.

A sound from the trail caught his attention and his grip relaxed so that Jessie could step far enough away to pull down her sweatshirt and run toward the parking lot. Tears coursed down her cheeks as she cursed herself for being so stupid as to think he liked her, really liked her for who she was, not what he could take from her.

George followed, whistling a merry tune. No matter how fast Jessie ran, she could hear him. She knew he was there, probably smirking at her stupidity. Her foolishness.

When Jessie reached the parking lot, she realized her mistake: she had no way home. She had no money, so couldn’t call her parents. She wouldn’t do that anyway as it would reinforce their belief in how undesirable she was. How they had told her over and over that no many would marry her, that men would only want her body, not her as a wife.

She ran past George’s car and toward the ranger booth, hoping someone would be inside to rescue her. But it was empty.

Her only choice was to walk down the long hill, but it was a street with no sidewalks, no way to get out of the way of passing cars. She headed that way, hoping that one of the  fast-moving vehicles would sense her plight and stop. None did. In a way, Jessie was relieved because one of those drivers might be as dangerous, if not more so, than George.

His car pulled alongside her and through the open widow, he said, “Get in. I’ll take you home.”

Jessie stepped off the road, backing into a barbed-wire fence.

He got out of the car and wrapped his arms around her waist. “I knew you liked me,” he said  He kissed her, fondled her, all while ignoring her mumbled cries to stop.

“Is there a problem?” a deep voice asked.

“No,” George said as he pulled away.

“Yes,” Jessie cried when she saw the park ranger. “Please, help me.”

“Sir, let the lady go.” The ranger glowered as he pulled Jessie aside. “Get in your car and drive away.”

“She’s got no way to get home. I’m her ride, so let her go.”

The ranger looked at Jessie. “Do you want to go with him?”

Jessie shook her head no. “But I’ll need help getting home.”

“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll take care of that.”

Once George was long gone, the ranger led her back up the hill to the booth. He had her sit on a folding metal chair next to his desk. “Now,” he said, “did he hurt you?”

“No. I’m okay. A little shaken up, though.”

“Do you have money for a cab?”

She shook her head.

“Can someone pick you up?”

“My parents, but I don’t want them to know about this. Please, don’t call them.”

The ranger nodded as he picked up the phone and made a call. He had her stay inside the booth until the cab came. He handed the driver money, then wished Jessie a good rest of the day.

Jessie dreaded what was waiting for her at home. Her parents would laugh uproariously, making fun as they’d done as she was growing up. This time would be worse, though, because George has proven them right, that no man would want her except for her body.

“Well, what happened?” her mom asked when she came through the front door. “Why didn’t that guy bring you home? Who paid for the cab?”

“Nothing happened,” Jessie said as she headed to her bedroom, her mother trailing behind.

“You’re lying.”

Jessie turned on her mother, her face contorted with anger. “You always think the worst. You never see anything good about me. You don’t trust me to know right from wrong. In fact, I’ve never heard you say you love me.” She closed the door to block out her mother’s shouts.

Jessie knew she’d have to see George again since he was her table partner, so she dreaded returning to class on Monday. But when the professor began his lecture, no George had appeared. She sighed. It was over. No love, no boyfriend, nothing except her parents.

Saddened, but relieved, Jessie wrote down copious notes as she fought to keep tears from flooding her eyes. George was yet another example of her failure to find the love that she so desperately yearned for.

When the professor stopped to turn on the projector, Jessie looked about the room, hoping that no one had noticed her distress. Everyone in front of her sat facing forward. For that she was grateful. No one behind her looked her way. To her left pairs of students were conversing quietly.. To her right an average-looking young man winked at her, shrugged his shoulders and then turned away.

Jessie’s eyes couldn’t pull away from him. His hair stuck out in crazy angles. His t-shirt was faded and a bit loose. When the man looked at her a second time, she smiled.

He wrote something on a piece of paper and passed it across the table that separated them. It simply said, “Meet me after class.”

Jessie’s heart soared. Maybe this rumpled, faded guy with a sweet, crooked smile was the guy she’d been waiting her whole life for.

 

Elias’ Ride

After a summer of camping trips all around California, Utah, and Nevada, the stuff on the shelves in the storage shed out back looked more like leftovers at a thrift store.  Keefe Kegan, a born-again “neatnik,” decided to tackle the mess, but not wanting to do it himself, Keefe invited his wife Daira to participate in the fun event. “It’ll be fun,” he said. “Think of all the treasures we’ll find out there.”

“This is what I’m thinking,” Daira said as she stepped into the family room dressed in paint-stained jeans and a faded blue t-shirt.  “I’ll help, but only is you turn off the game.”

“After one more play.”

“Nope.” She grabbed the remote from his right hand.  “You’re the one who wanted to do the cleaning.  I agreed only because you promised I’d be free to go shopping when we finished.”  She turned off the television and opened the door to the back yard. “Come on. Times’ wasting.”

Keefe followed.  She looks good even in her worst clothes, he thought as his eyes drifted down his wife’s well-built body.

“Where should we begin?”  Daira’s eyes scanned the garage.  From rafters to the floor, detritus took up space.

“Top down.” Keefe set up the ladder.  He zipped up the rungs and opened the first box to inspect the contents.  “Winter boots, gloves, hats.”

“Leave it.”

“Photo albums.”

“Nope. Don’t want them.”

Keefe held one up. “This is our wedding book. Shouldn’t we keep it?”

“You can if you want.”

“Okay,” he said as he placed it back in the box. “How about baby clothes?  Why in the heck do we have them anyway?  We don’t have any kids.”

“Remember when we thought I was pregnant?  There was a baby shower.” Daira whispered.  “Give them away.”

Keefe scooted the box to one side. “Maybe you’ll get pregnant again. Better keep them.”

Daira wiped tears from her eyes. “Whatever.”

And so the day went. One box after another, one pile gone, another kept. Keefe parted with some camping gear that he hadn’t used in years, some old fishing poles of his dad’s, and a down jacket that no longer fit.  Daira got rid of clothes that were out of style, a carton of garish dishes her mother thought Daria might like, and some paintings that she started in her teen years, but never finished.

By late afternoon, they were filthy with dust, drenched in sweat and exhausted, but the garage was back to its pre-summer state.  They washed their hands in the garage sink.

“What should we do about dinner?” Keefe asked.

“I’ll get the phone while you figure out dinner,”  Daira said as the garage door creaked shut.

“Sure.”  Keefe brushed his dust-covered hands on his jeans and then his fingers through his hair, removing leaves and dirt that had fallen.

“It’s for you,” Daira handed him the phone as he entered the house.

“Who is it?”

“Elias.”

While Keefe talked to his friend, Daira searched through the freezer and pulled out some hamburgers and buns. Keefe would barbeque them later. Just as she began shucking an ear of corn, Keefe returned.

“Elias is starting a limo business. He’s out front with one he says is a good deal.  He wants us to check it out.”

“Is he looking for money?”

“Probably.  What do you think?”

“I’m dirty and tired,” she said as she leaned against the sink.  “You go.”

“Just a minute.”  Keefe’s forehead wrinkled as he listened to Elias. Daira heard blah, blah, blah, straight from a children’s cartoon.  “He says he values your opinion.  He doesn’t care what you look like.”

Daira learned long ago that Elias was as tenacious as a shark, so there was no point in arguing.  She took off toward the front door, wriggling her fingers in a “let’s go” sign at her husband.

As Keefe passed the computer desk, he dropped the phone in its cradle.

In front of the house sat a bright red stretch limo.  Elias stood beside an open door dressed in a chauffeur’s uniform.  Giggling like a little girl, Daira scooted into the dark interior.  After slapping his friend’s hand, Keefe did the same.

“Make yourselves comfortable,” Elias said.  “Check out the refrigerator.”

“The leather is so soft I could fall asleep and take a long nap.” Daira slid toward the front of the passenger space.

Keefe found a bottle of champagne in the refrigerator and held it up. “should we open it?”

“I guess. But don’t give any to Eias.”

After popping the cork and pouring champagne into two glasses, Keefe offered a toast. “To us.”

They tapped glasses and sipped simultaneously. “How much money does he want?” Daira asked.

“Don’t know. Darn, this stuff tastes good.”

As exhausted as they were, it didn’t take long for a buzz to set in.  Daira nestled close to her husband, finding that special spot in which her body fit nicely with his.  With Keefe’s arm draped over her shoulder, it wasn’t long before romantic notions trooped through her head.  “Have you ever done it in a limo?” she asked.

“Nope.  You?”

“No.  Can  Elias see through that glass?”

“Who cares,” Keefe said as he kissed his wife.

As the limo glided along a road that neither of them cared about, the kissing deepened and the temperature rose.  Clothing pieces fell off, hands groped, and lips swelled.  They were oblivious to anything but themselves, and so they failed to notice when the limo stopped.

“Slide over,” Elias’ cheerful voice sounded.

Daria pushed away and held her t-shirt across her chest.  Keefe, intent on the object of his desire hadn’t heard his friend. He thought she was playing a game, and so tore the shirt from her hands and flung it to the far end of the limo.

“Idiot!” Daira hissed.  “Go get it.”

“Why?”  Keefe gazed into her eyes.  Shocked by the glare coming his way, he leaned back.  Only then did he hear the muffled sounds of movement, “What’s happening?”

“Surprise!”  A chorus rang out.  Now seated around them were their best friends:  Josh and his wife Nancy, Pete and Marisol, Kimi and her partner Spirit, and Elias’s wife Helene.

“Happy anniversary,” Elias said.  “It’s a come-as-you-are party.  I just didn’t realize that you two would be the entertainment.”

“What are you talking about?”  Keefe said as he zipped his jeans.  “Our anniversary was six months ago.”

“I know, I know,” Elias said.  “The thing is, back then I couldn’t figure out a way to make it special.  Ten years together is worth celebrating.  When I got a chance to take the limo for a test drive, I got this great idea and called out friends.”

“Why didn’t you tell us?” Daria’s eyes traveled from one friend’s face to another.

“I know you hate people making a fuss, Daria.  Once we decided to have a party, we all swore to keep it a secret,” Elias said.  “When Keefe told me you were cleaning the garage, I called everyone and told them to wear jeans. If you notice, none of us are dressed up, except for me, but I’m the chauffeur.   See?”

 

It was hard to stay angry as Elias.  Daria smiled, as did Keefe.  “You could at least have warned us before you opened the door,” Keefe said.  “That was hecka embarrassing.”

“I called over the intercom, but you two were way too busy back here to notice,” Elias said.  “Now it’s time to party!  Champagne, everyone!”

Keefe opened the refrigerator, and took out another bottle of bubbly. He opened it and poured glasses for everyone.  Toasts were offered and laughter filled the limo. Elias dropped a CD into the stereo and soft music floated in the air.

Elias’ wife unwrapped a basket filled with cheese, crackers, and salami.   Deviled eggs appeared, as did lumpia, veggies and dip, and shrimp cocktail.  There was even a pre-sliced cake with tiny candles.

Stories of embarrassing moments were shared, with one friend attempting to outdo another.  Laughter filled the crowded limo.

As dawn broke, Keefe offered one last toast.  “To my wife, to my friends, and to Elias, for his bizarre party idea.  This has been one terrific evening!”  After clinking his glass with his wife’s, he bent over and said, “To my come-as-you- are wife.  I’ll love you forever.”

 

 

 

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.

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: Into Danger

Nix called a halt sunder some low-hanging trees o 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 and 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 before we enter the forest.”

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.

Was I invincible? Probably not, but it didn’t hurt to think that a few magical words could protect myself, my friends and our entire force.

Nix did not lead the way which told me that he expected trouble. What captain would hide amidst soldiers rather than inspire them by his daring? One who feared death, that’s who.

I pushed my way forward until I was within talking distance of Nix. When Nix and I entered the forest, a loud, piercing scream rattled me so much that I pulled back on the reins, terrifying Ruthie into bucking. I hung on to the horn and gripped her sides with my legs so tightly that my knees ached. I leaned forward until my nose was buried in her mane and spoke reassuring words until her front hooves touched sand once again.

Our ranks were in disarray. Instead of an orderly procession of two horsemen riding  side-by-side, many of us stood alone. I, thanks to being near Nix, was engulfed by armed soldiers brandishing spears and longswords. No word was spoken, no orders given. All acted in unison, however, which must be due to years of rigorous training.

I pulled my sword from its scabbard and tried to hold it steadily aloft, but I was no trained warrior. In seconds my arm tired and the sword fell at my side. Instead I did what little I could do: I chanted wards over and over hoping that at least one would keep us safe.

Karznir’s army surrounded us. We couldn’t move in any direction. Only the outer soldiers could inflict damage, but the enemy was as well-trained as we were. They formed a line about ten feet away: far enough that no sword, no spear could harm them.

Nix glowered at me as he waggled his fingers at the enemy. I understood what he wanted: I was to employ a magic spell that would numb the minds of Kraznir’s men. I was to freeze their bodies into living statues. I was supposed to spellbind them to yearn to be free of Kraznir’s leagues and to skip to our side.

I raised my hands, palms down, closed my eyes and screamed so that my voice would carry over those still harbored in the forest, “Tre at na lee.” I repeated it three times, as all wards were meant to. Were their minds numb? Well, it seemed as if they were as all about me all I saw were blank eyes. Good for the enemy, but not for us! I hadn’t learned how to target spells at some leaving out others!

That left Doughty, Little John and I. The wards couldn’t touch us thanks to a reflection ward my mentor had employed before we left. We were the survivors. We could do whatever we wanted.

Doughty rode up next to me and whispered, “What do we do now?”

I shrugged and turned to Little John. He said, “We could sneak off into the forest, across rivers and mountains to another kingdom. But eventually King Taden’s forces would find us, tie us up, and throw us into the dungeon of Siln.”

“Or,” Doughty said, “we could ride among both sides and steal their weapons. If Touchfire can keep the ward alive, we should be able to disarm all soldiers and hide their weapons deep in the forest.”

They looked at me with hope in their eyes. I nodded, raised my hands, and chanted again. Doughty worked on our soldiers while Little John stole Kraznir’s mens’ weapons.

It took hours. Whenever I lowered my hands, within fifteen minutes a man would stir here or there. Eyes might blink. Coughs might rattle lungs. Then I’d raise my hands and chant, “Tre ot na lee,” and “Linx fa bay,” which was supposed to turn them into living statues.

I was greatly relieved when my companions were by my side once again.

“I have an idea,” Doughty said. “Follow me.”

The three of us wove in and out of Taden’s horsemen until we were alongside Kraznir’s. “Did you learn the spellbinding ward? The one the allows minds to change?”

“I was just starting to work on that one.”

He smiled a devilish smile and said,” Well, give it a try. If we can convince Kraznir’s men to join with us, this battle will be over once and for all.”

I closed my eyes and pictured the words in my spell book. I sept my arm across the enemy ranks and softly chanted, “Bae von oz nae.”

“Do it again,” Little John said.

When I was finished, he asked me to send out a suggestion that they come to Siln of their own free will.

I nodded, closed my eyes, relaxed my breathing, and imagined words traveling into minds. Words changing minds. Words changing allegiance.

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.