Needles and Pins (A Villanelle)

Needles and pins swirling in a transparent jar,

A weighted bird looks wistful at blue skies;

She yearns, and hasn’t traveled very far.

A heart that beats its own drum is a heart with scars,

In between the sighs, the planning and the tries:

Needles and pins swirling in a transparent jar.

Like a downy feather dipped in heavy tar,

The soft turned strong, but the weight will never fly—

She yearns, and hasn’t traveled very far.

Illusions of the mind will set the impossible bar,

The shackles we create in an effort to get high:

Needles and pins swirling in a transparent jar.

A bird can hang its hopes upon a star,

And with the effort, find a thousand ways to die;

She yearns, and hasn’t traveled very far.

But outside of the smoke plumes in the bar,

There may exist clean air enough to rise;

Needles and pins swirling in a transparent jar.

She yearns, and hasn’t traveled very far.

A Story for Paradise (Pt. III of III)

Part Three

            “Both girls nodded back at him, and, starting with Elizabet’s decaying feet, he spread a hearty layer of poultice over the afflicted area until all four of her limbs were coated. This he followed with a layer of fresh honey to lock in moisture. He wrapped her limbs in the treated rabbit skins with the fur facing out, strapping them in place with long leather straps. He changed into fresh leather gloves and repeated the process on Genevieve and, by the time he’d finished with the last rabbit hide, the two girls’ heads drooped onto their chests.

            “‘The tea is a mild sedative,’ he explained. ‘You’ll sleep well tonight.’

            “‘How long must we wear the furs?’ Genevieve asked.

            “‘Sleep with these furs,’ said van Sputten. ‘You’ll wear the furs until your appendages burn or until the next full moon, whichever comes first.’

            ‘That is a very long time to go without bathing,’ Genevieve said, a hint of doubt in her voice.

            “‘The honey is antibacterial and should help in the healing process,’ van Sputten replied. ‘You shouldn’t need to bathe for some time.’

            “‘It tingles,’ Elizabet said, wrinkling her nose. ‘Oh, won’t you help me to bed?’ She reached out towards van Sputten who lifted her from her seat easily and placed her in folds of her downy bedding. Genevieve walked herself to bed and slipped inside it gratefully. Van Sputten distributed two candles and two silver bells to the ladies and threw a few final logs on the fire. 

            “‘Should you need anything,’ he said, bowing low, ‘don’t hesitate to call for me.’

            “‘Thank you, good sir,’ Genevieve said as she threw the covers over herself with rabbit mittens. 

            “Van Sputten made his way to the exit and uttered, ‘Heal fast and true,’ clicking the heavy doors shut behind him. A tremendous wave of relief washed over him, equal parts euphoria and fatigue. An image flashed across his mind of Alice dancing around a bonfire, a gauzy white dress just transparent enough to reveal nipples, navel, and pubic hair. Untamed lust shot through him, which he shook out of his head with a sigh, touching his chest. The cook nearly made him jump out of his skin.

            “‘’Ow’d i’ go?’ He whispered coarsely from the shadows of the moonlit hallway. ‘Ah wan’ed t’ come in bu’ though’ Ah’d ruin th’ magic.’

            “‘Dear cook,’ van Sputten said warmly once he’d shaken his nerves, and clasped his comrade by the shoulders. ‘I’ve done what I know how to do. The rest is up to the herbs, and the moonlight, and the princesses.’

            “‘Ach, sir, ye did a grand deed!’ the cook hollered exuberantly, clapping a hand on van Sputten’s back. ‘Cheers to ye!’

            “The two men made their way down the spiral staircase and van Sputten retired immediately to his chamber, where he quickly fell into a deep, delicious sleep. He dreamed Alice floated above him in a pool of water, deadly still but somehow still alive, old and young, mother and daughter, maiden and crone…He touched her cheeks and white eyes opened, blinking, knowing and unknowing. She pulled him towards her by the back of his neck and kissed him, cold fingers and cold lips entwining with his hotblooded desire for her until he woke in a sweat, moon dripping through his curtains. He panted heavily in his bedclothes, touching his chest. 

            “‘Alice,’ he gasped as he fought for breath. When he’d recovered his thoughts and breath, he took a slug of the celebratory spiced wine the cook had poured him before bed and stared out the window until at last he again surrendered to sleep.”

            “Mm-mm-mm!” Inca crowed enthusiastically. “This story is sizzling! Van Sputten could pour me a cup of medicine tea, if you know what I mean!” She laughed at her own joke at great length while her footmen exchanged significant looks. 

            “Very good, your grace,” Thaedrus said, eyeing the roast lamb sitting on her plate which was drowning in chutney and, at this point, quite cold. “If your grace permits me to—erm—select a morsel of lamb—”

            “When the story’s done!” Inca bellowed. “And no rushing!”

            “As the goddess commands,” Thaedrus said, sighing heavily. “Well, thoughts of Alice haunted our hero in the coming days after the full moon—her memory chased him down the stony hallways, her scent snuck into his every bite of food, her visage winked back at him from all the royal paintings hanging from the walls. She crept into his dreams and pressed their bodies together, leaving van Sputten restless and in a cold sweat night after restless night. Meanwhile, the princesses kept to their chamber and dutifully left their bandages in place, sipping the herbal tea before bed which tasted of apple blossoms and warm hay.

            “Desperate to clear his head by the dawn of the seventh day after the full moon, van Sputten burst into the stable to collect the chestnut-colored horse which had been his companion one week before. His agitation spilled into the stall, and the horse did not take as kindly to him as on their first voyage. The two battled each other as van Sputten urged the steed faster and faster through the undergrowth, every few moments beating its hindquarters with a stick and every few moments imagining Alice, their bodies entwined, the blood rushing through him for entirely different reasons…

            “When they came at last to a river, he paused only to let his mount drink. He paced beside the animal, scowling into the forest and digging his fingernails into his palms. Suddenly, an owl whooshed directly over his head, the rush of air raking sandalwood through his senses. Our hero thought he might go mad if this onslaught continued—his desire burned so hot and strong and ceaseless, and so entirely consumed his thoughts. The impending, swelling urgency which had taken over his very cells throughout the week threatened to break over him like a great wave, and the medicine man collapsed on the shore of the riverbank, clutching his throbbing skull and praying ardently for relief.

“Like a drop of cool water in a hot skillet, Alice’s voice seared itself across his mind: ‘Come.’”

            “Oh!” cried Inca, who was now breathing rather heavily and leaning forward intently in her chair.

            “Ahem,” Thaedrus said. To see his master’s rapt attention gave him confidence, and he carried on with just a hint of gusto.

            “Throwing his body over the steed, van Sputten raced towards the fortress as fast as his horse would carry him. The forest seemed to respond to his fervor; gusts of wind swirled through the canopy, whipping the leaves and needles into a lather. Bits of debris rained down on him and lodged in his thick hair, and fat drops of icy rain began to pelt his neck and shoulders, sending a deep, gradual chill down his spine, thick and slow as honey. The sky grew darker and darker as heavy clouds bloomed out of the ether. Electricity pinpricked the air and every hair on van Sputten’s body seemed to be standing on end. He could not suppress a rugged howl as he urged his horse still faster through the turbulent atmosphere.

            “By the time the two souls made it back to the fortress, the horse’s hide was thick with perspiration and mud. Van Sputten tossed the reins hastily to the open-mouthed stable boy and shook his head like a wet dog, sending a shower of droplets and leaf litter left and right. He screamed at the guards overhead: ‘Let me in! Let me in this instant!’

            “Mystified but dutiful, the guards lowered the drawbridge, though not without a hint of disdain at the ex-knight’s lack of manners. The door had not even hit the ground before van Sputten posted one palm on its edge and vaulted over it. He sprinted past the perplexed cook, who shouted after him with offerings of dry clothes and nourishment, his heart leaping out of his chest and an incredible pressure squeezing him evenly across his goosepimpled skin. Dashing up the spiral stairs two at a time and panting like a jungle cat, van Sputten sped up to the princess’ chamber and pounded urgently at the door.

            “‘If it pleases your highnesses, let me in!’ he cried, an edge of desperation slicing through his voice. ‘Let me in, let me in!’ He pounded at the door until a rather shaken-looking Genevieve opened it, staring at him from her young, freckled face.

            “Van Sputten rushed to the hearth, haphazardly throwing logs on the fire until it crackled and grew so rapidly it threatened to lick flames up towards the mantle. Snatching a match and striking it decisively against the stone wall, he forcibly ripped a fresh candle from its housing and lit it. The wild man stood, chest heaving, water streaming from his garments and hair, staring wide-eyed at the two women with the lit candle raised up to the level of his eyes.

            “‘Come,’ he said to Genevieve, but it was not his voice which carried the word—it was strong and feminine and decidedly Alice’s.

            “Genevieve strode towards him, determined not to be cowed by his rough appearance. When she stood in front of him, she said emphatically, ‘I demand that you tell me what is going on.’

            “Van Sputten placed his wide hands on the princess’ waist and pulled her tightly to him, gazing intently into her eyes. A ripple of heat flooded the room and Elizabet let out a small whimper from her bed.

            “‘Unhand me,’ Genevieve said breathlessly. Her cheeks were flushed and her eyes fiery. No one had ever dared touch her like this before.

            “‘In good time, m’lady,’ van Sputten snarled, reaching between their bodies to bring forth the bone-handled knife. He raised the princess’ hands above her head and, deftly and surprisingly gently, he cut the leather binding from the rabbit fur and peeled it away, his eyes darting hungrily between the princess’ green eyes and parted lips as he did so, his task hardening in the air around them until Genevieve, too, was breathless.

            “When the bandages were free from their housings, Lady Genevieve brought her hands down to meet her eyes, chest heaving as she did so.

            “‘Oh!’ she gasped, sending a shiver down van Sputten’s spine. ‘Oh, sister! Look!’ She held her hands out for Elizabet to see—the skin was pink and firm, dewy with poultice and honey, and completely enclosed over her digits.

            “‘Elizabet’s bandages,’ van Sputten growled hungrily. Genevieve looked at him, taking his meaning. Wordlessly, the two of them strode over to Elizabet’s resting place, pulling her gently from the bed and coaxing her feet onto the floor. Together, they silently ripped her bandages free as perspiration dripped steadily down van Sputten’s brow, anticipation still coursing hot within him. As he removed the final leather strap from Elizabet’s foot, a wave of euphoria undulated through him, causing his body to convulse. He fell to his hands and knees and, throwing his head back, let out a cry which belonged both to his voice, and Alice’s. Pleasure pulsed through him, catching in the princess’ throats, filling them with exultation until they, too, could not remain silent. At that moment, the clouds outside the windows abruptly broke and the rain stopped. Sunlight gushed into the room and the three of them huddled together, winded, laughing, and clutching each other, poultice and honey dribbling to the floor in slow, sensuous drops.”

            “Oh!” Inca cried loudly. “He did it!”

            “Indeed, your grace,” Thaedrus said, bowing his head slightly.

            “Well did he regain his honor? Did he marry Alice?”

            “If I could have but a sip of water…” Thaedrus trailed off. Hastily, Inca thrust forward her half-filled wine chalice, the contents of which swirled invitingly and threatened to leap out of the golden cup.

            “Here,” she said brusquely. “Drink, and finish your story—and I will fix you a plate.”

            Bowing even deeper, Thaedrus took a deep draught from his master’s cup.

            “And so!” he declared, setting the empty cup down in the green, green grass. “And so, the princesses were met with their cure! The cook prepared rations for a journey and the furriers readied several horses. Within two days, Genevieve, Elizabet, van Sputten, and six guards rode from the fortress to the realm of King Walden III, a land whose flowing waters and verdant fields and supple crops had withered and dried up on the day the princesses departed all those years ago. As the months crawled by in isolation for the two royal girls, the kingdom fell deeper and deeper into darkness. The people survived on sturdy rye crackers and sheep cheese and little else—the earth would not yield, as though it had been salted, and the people scraped by bartering wool for supplies and sustenance. But the land could only support so many sheep before the creatures grazed it barren and muddy, and the citizens’ faith in their leader was wearing thin.

            “Thus, on the day their highnesses returned, trumpets sounded from every turret and the king himself met them at the royal gates. He wept to see them, and they him, and he ushered them inside to greet their mother.”

            “And van Sputten?” Inca asked as she slapped the remaining lamb flesh onto a plate, dropping a few wedges of fruit haphazardly on top. “Did he regain his knighthood?”

            “Indeed,” Thaedrus nodded, “and he became chief council for the king. In the weeks that followed the princess’ return, the kingdom enjoyed temperate weather and jubilation as the king’s advisors rallied behind van Sputten in looking for a new antidote—how to save the land.”

            “A knight and a farmer?” Inca drawled, raising her eyebrows at Thaedrus. “Don’t push it too much, now, little man.”

            Clearing his throat and taking a calming breath, Thaedrus replied, “Not a farmer, your excellency, no—but a sensitive, intuitive soul speaking on behalf of the land. He journeyed back into the woods with a caravan of young men and taught them to forage respectfully and sustainably. He taught them to hunt wild boar and fowl and to raise rabbits for meat. And every day, he prayed to Alice for guidance, and every day he missed her, though the pain of this ached like a companion, and he grew accustomed to its sting. 

            “At the dawn of a new year and as winter threatened to give way into spring, van Sputten woke from his slumber one morning and knew that Alice was on her way to him. Like a bird of prey he leapt from his bed, scrubbed his face, threw on a fresh tunic and dashed from his chamber—only to find she had already been granted a meeting with the king. Doing his best not to rush the royal throne room, he walked as deliberately as he could over the threshold to behold Alice, dressed in a light, blue woolen gown with white flowers adorning her head in a lush vine. She looked wild as ever, and her dark hair extra curly. Van Sputten swallowed nervously and cleared his throat. Her head swiveled first and then her eyes followed—but she smiled to see him, and gesturing with one finger, she bid him come to her.

            “You see, Alice was the daughter of a successful farmer and had learned the needs of the land under his tutelage. But when she had fostered her intuition and incorporated it into caring for both soil and plants, her religious father cast her out of the home, banishing her as a witch. No one knew earth better than Alice, and Alice was prepared to help this struggling king, the king who had made van Sputten a knight and had offered to protect her under his reign.

            “Within a year, the fields were green again, the harvests bountiful, and Alice was pregnant with van Sputten’s child. The two married, barefoot, in a small outdoor ceremony and built two modest cottages at the edge of the king’s land—one for the knight, and one for the woman. Autonomy was important to Alice, and van Sputten vowed to honor her gifts and dreams, crazy as he was to share every moment with her. The two produced four children who grew up to be healers, horse trainers, musicians, and cooks, and they lived out the rest of their days happily under the rule of King Walden III of Umbledunn and his two lovely daughters.”

            Inca applauded rigorously. “I knew he was going to marry Alice!” she cried. “I just knew it!”

            “In—Indeed, m’lady,” Thaedrus said, looking pointedly at the full plate in Inca’s grasp. “If the lady bids it…?” He darted his eyes from Inca’s to the cold meat in her lap.

            “Oh, go on then,” Inca sighed, carelessly holding the plate out and rolling her eyes. “It’s all you want anyway.”

            Thaedrus snatched his meal from the air and ate hungrily, pausing only to breathe and request more wine. Abrazek and Limizhad looked on jealously and kicked the ground with their toes.

            When Thaedrus had eaten his fill, the four of them packed up the evidence of Inca’s picnic and hoisted her from the ground. The sun was raining down on them, bright white and hot, but not too hot, as nothing in heaven ever was. Elzoarah and Bethelbar returned from their errand with jugs of eternal spring water, and the six of them shared one long, slow, glorious drink. It was a day like any other in paradise.

            “Thaedrus?” Inca said softly, swaying from her perch on the rickshaw. They were headed towards the great waterfall to harvest grapes and pink salt.

            “Yes, your grace?” Thaedrus answered.

            “Do you think you could tell me another story, when we’re back from the falls and supper’s done?” 

Inca had never asked him so gently for anything before.

“If your grace wishes it, it shall be done,” Thaedrus replied dutifully, and the cavalcade continued its march into the sun.

A Story for Paradise (Short Story Pt. II of III)

 Part Two

           “Van Sputten heard the sound of the door unlocking, and he pressed himself to the wall. The girl who opened the door could not see him from her vantage point, and the cook went inside, casting van Sputten a look which clearly said, ‘Wait there.’

            “The traveler paced restlessly for what could’ve been ten minutes or could’ve been an hour—his hopes rising with every passing moment. By the time cook opened the door and poked his head into the hallway, van Sputten’s fingers were white for wringing his hands in anticipation.

            “‘They says ye can come in,’ the cook said warmly, and pushed the door open with a wide hand. Van Sputten smoothed his hair and cleared his throat. He took a pinch of pulverized tobacco from a leather pouch hanging from his waist, dropped it on the back of his hand, and snorted it. He shook his head, wiped his nose, and walked into the invalids’ chamber.

            “There were two windows which spilled sunlight over half the room’s floor, and candles—candles everywhere, hung on the walls, on the desk, on free-standing candelabras—and all a sweet, fragrant beeswax, not the cheap ones made of tallow. There were paintings tacked into the stone on almost every available surface of each wall, and some were affixed to the ceilings of the two canopy bed frames, burgundy velvet curtains spilling over the floor. A large cloth was covering the floor near the windows, an easel with a litany of paints spread out across it. The room smelled of frankincense and beeswax and something else van Sputten could not name. He had smelled death many times on the battlefield, but this was not it—it was more like death’s cousin, a mixture of fatigue, loneliness, and fear which hung heavy in the back of the throat in spite of the other pleasant odors of the room.       

            “Van Sputten then saw the two young women glowing in the candlelight. One was slightly fairer than the other, and she sat near the easel, haloed by the incoming sun. The other waved a gloved hand from within the burgundy folds of her bed, one finger moving at a time.

            “‘Do come in,’ she called from the bed. ‘Don’t be shy.’

            “Van Sputten cleared his throat again. ‘Good afternoon, your highnesses,’ he said, adopting his long-forsaken role of servant to nobility. He bowed deeply and touched a closed fist to his chest. ’How fare ye noblewomen this day?’

            “‘In truth, I am tired,’ came the gentle voice from the bed, ‘but you are a sight for sore eyes. We have not had a visitor in many months. Genevieve has been saying father has given up on us, that there’s no one left in all the lands who is skilled enough to cure to this disease.’”

            Abrazek snorted. 

            “Do you have something you’d like to say, hmm? Any last words?” Inca growled, pulling the charcoal from her pocket menacingly. Abrazek seemed on the precipice of sharing his thoughts when Thaedrus stepped in:

            “It is a lot of pressure, isn’t it Abrazek,” he said, nodding at his cohort and widening his eyes meaningfully. “A lot of pressure from the nobility to perform a miracle.” He darted his eyes at Inca several times and raised a finger to his lips. Abrazek nodded back earnestly and beamed at Inca, zippering his fingers over his lips.

            “It would take a miracle to get you idiots to behave,” Inca grumbled. “Now, Thaedrus. I’d like to hear van Sputten’s attempt. This had better be good,” she added ominously.

            “Yes, m’liege,” Thaedrus replied dutifully. “Van Sputten located a small washbowl, a brick of soap, and a pitcher of water on a small table near the door.

            “‘I am no miracle-worker,’ he said slowly, ‘but I have deep relationship with plant medicine. If your highnesses permit, I might cleanse my hands and see at what ails you?’ 

            “‘Please,’ said the haloed princess, and she gestured towards the basin. Van Sputten took care to scrub his hands well before making his way to the bedridden princess who had first greeted him. Even in her delicate state, she was beautiful—she had piercing green eyes and long tawny hair which sprang into curls around her face; freckles painted her sallow skin. She was thin—far too thin—but she smiled at him when he sat beside her.

            “‘What afflicts you, lady?’ van Sputten asked gently.

            “‘Well, now you’ve never seen strange until you’ve seen this.’ She took a deep breath and began to peel back a long glove, painstakingly gingerly. By the time her glove was turned inside out and every finger free, van Sputten saw a sickly sight: the skin withered from the fingertips and grew brittle and cracked along the extent of her forearm. The flesh of her fingers was a terrible kind of ashen grey, and blue-grey veins spiderwebbed over the surface of her arm. The removed glove was wet with pus and blood and her exposed skin weeped between them. The cook was at her side in a flash with a fresh pair of gloves, and he held out a basket for the sodden pair. The smell of rotting flesh hit the air and van Sputten had his answer.

            “‘Is it painful?’ the ex-knight inquired.

            “‘There are good days and bad days,’ the princess smiled weakly, ‘but today is a bad day.’

            “‘And your feet, too?’

            “‘The extremeties, yes,’ she sighed.

            “‘And no balms of any kind can stop the cracking?’ he asked.

            “‘My sister and I have tried imported salt baths, mud soaks, infused oils of nuts and olives from distant lands, oat and butter balms, and a slew of animal fat rubs, all of which merely made the skin more sensitive, more prone to breaking—we’ve changed our diet a hundred times and tried a hundred ancient healing foods, recommended from medicine men and women across the lands. We’ve lit fires and sweat through our garments until we hallucinated with fatigue, and we’ve left our windows open and taken ice baths until we nearly caught our death—it is an exhaustive list of failed remedies which would pain me greatly to detail in full,’ the haloed princess pronounced smartly. She seemed to be in better health than her sister.

            “‘Apologies, Miss,’ van Sputten bowed his head to her, ‘but I must know what you’ve tried so we don’t repeat it.’ He helped the bedridden princess into her fresh pair of gloves as tenderly as he could. 

            “At length he said, ‘I must go gather supplies from the forest. I will be gone for three days and three nights. In a fortnight is the full moon. That is the day I will administer my medicine—if your highnesses do not object to lodging me so long.’

            “‘Our disease gets worse with each passing day,’ the haloed princess said. ‘Any edge you might have on our ailment is worth pursuing. Cookie! Make sure he has everything he needs, will you? This man is our guest.’ 

            “The cook bowed deeply. ‘As m’lady wishes,’ he said, then gestured for van Sputten to follow him out of the chamber. 

            “‘Rest well, your highnesses,’ the healer said as he pulled the door shut. Once in the hallway, he let out a deep sigh.

            “‘Gruesome sigh’, innit?’ the cook whispered loudly. ‘Sir took i’ be’er than th’ las’ doc we scrounged up.’ He slapped van Sputten on the back amicably. ‘Will sir be needin’ a horse?’

            “‘Indeed, and please,’ he replied. ‘I aim to leave in an hour. I have much to do.’

            “With the help of the kindly cook and the princess’ generosity, van Sputten packed a small rucksack with rations, collection jars and satchels, a bone-handled knife from the kitchen, and several woolen garments. He had traveled with less before, and he sensed the forest would provide for him again. As he strapped his bag to a chestnut-colored steed, his chest throbbed to think of the woman he loved and had left behind. Running his hands through his unruly hair, he thought once, briefly, of the lock he had given her which she had used so benevolently in a lasting protection charm—and wondered how things might be different if she had kept it in a necklace close to her heart instead. He shook his head and mounted the horse and, with one final wave to the friendly cook, our hero was off to gather a crop of medicine to heal the princesses and regain his honor. 

            “He swept the forest floor with his eyes as he rode, stopping frequently to ask the plants for permission to pluck them, never over-harvesting, constantly on the move. He gathered flowers and moss and plantain. He found serviceberries by a merry little stream which he drank from heartily, bottling some of the pure water to bring to his patients. 

            “The first night he caught and killed eight large rabbits, which he skinned and roasted over a fire, sparks twinkling up towards the stars as fat hissed into the flames. He scraped the silverskin from their pelts using his knife and salted the hides generously, stretching them out with nails and sticks and posting them close to the fire. The horse munched on wild crabapples and whinnied contentedly as van Sputten tied the collected herbs into bundles to dry. He removed a small flask from the folds of his coat and took a small sip. It was a chilly night, and he needed the warmth.

            “‘Drinking on the job?’

            “Did his eyes deceive him? The medicine woman whom he had left all those many weeks ago stepped from the darkness and into the circle of light. Her hair was unruly and her cheeks were flushed, as if she had ran from her faraway 

cottage to meet him.

            “‘Alice?’ he whispered.

            “‘Love,’ she replied, her eyes glowing as she strode towards him with open palms. She grasped his hands affectionately and leaned down to kiss him on the forehead. His voice caught in his throat as he smelled the sandalwood oil she massaged into her scalp every morning. ‘You are on your first journey as a healer.’ She smiled at him from beneath lively eyes.

            “‘Please,’ van Sputten managed to say. ‘Sit?’ He patted the earth beside him and, when she accepted his offer, he handed her his flask. She accepted this too, and took a deliberate mouthful.

            “‘Mm,’ she moaned softly. ‘Royal wine…’ She handed him the flask, but he waved it away.

            “‘Keep it,’ he said, and looked into her wild eyes. Desire burned hot within him, and he turned his attention to the dying fire. 

            “‘I’ve missed you,’ Alice said as she watched him toss a few sticks onto the orange embers. ‘I’ve been thinking of you.’

            “‘I know.’ Van Sputten exhaled slowly. ‘I’ve felt it…I’ve felt you.’ He was no virgin, but he blushed. 

            “‘Good,’ Alice said. ‘That’s where the magic lives.’ Silence fell between the two of them as he prodded the fire and breathed it back to life. The space between them hummed warmly and the night seemed extra dark and extra cold outside of their little circle.

            “‘I’m not sure I can do it,’ van Sputten said after a spell. ‘I don’t want to let them down or cause them any more pain.’

            “‘Do no harm,’ Alice nodded. ‘An important first step. Tell me what you’ve seen and show me what you’ve gathered.’

            “Van Sputten piled a plate with roast rabbit and wild roots and handed it to his mentor, describing the princess’ ailments. When she’d eaten her fill, he showed her all the herbs he’d gathered, and the rabbit skins, and the serviceberries and spring water.

            “‘Mm, and the coming full moon!’ she exclaimed, anticipating his process.

            “‘Exactly,’ van Sputten said, bowing his head. ‘I imagined how you would do it.’

            “‘It is a good plan.’ The woman shook her hair from her shoulders and reached into her curly mane to withdraw a small bundle of a fragrant, silvery plant with velvet leaves.

            “‘Burn this,’ she said slowly, holding the bundle before his eyes, ‘twice: once before you craft your cure, and once before you apply it. Open their chamber windows and urge the smell of death out. Change the bedding and their gloves and moccasins. Allow space for fresh, healthful life to take root.’ She kissed the soft leaves and handed them to her apprentice. 

            “‘Thank you,’ van Sputten said, and tucked the bundle into his rucksack. ‘I will.’

            “‘I must leave you now,’ Alice said, drawing a finger under his chin. ‘Don’t forget about me when you are an esteemed knight.’ She gazed at him, and leaned forward to kiss his cheek. ‘You know where to find me,’ she said as she rose to her feet, brushing leaf litter and dirt from the folds of her heavy woolen skirts. Drawing her shawl tighter around her shoulders, she stared into the fire for a few moments, swaying from side to side on both feet. The world seemed to slow to a halt as van Sputten looked at her hungrily, already missing her, already wondering when, if ever, he might see her again.

            “‘We are connected, you and I,’ Alice said gently, as if to answer his thoughts. ‘I’m never as far away as you might think.’ She stroked the chestnut-colored horse on the nose and looked over her shoulder at the ex-knight sitting by the fire.

            “‘Goodbye, Warlock,’ she said, and stepped into the darkness. She was gone. 

            “Van Sputten’s mission took the forefront after that. He did not stop collecting medicine until the sun was high in the sky on the third day, at which point he turned his mount towards the royal fortress. They rode hard and covered many miles, and by the time the sun was dipping beneath the horizon, sweaty steed and rider galloped up to the drawbridge.

            “‘Hallo, there!’ van Sputten called out, and the sleepy guards tripped over themselves to let man and horse in. The steed was tended to immediately and the cook welcomed van Sputten into the kitchen for an evening meal, though he refused to eat until he had laid out every herb on one of the treated rabbit skins and taken final inventory of his supplies. 

            “He ate unreservedly, bread and cheese and sauerkraut, and slices of roast chicken with splashes of rosemary olive oil, creamy potatoes, carrots, and parsnips. The cook filled his mug of ale twice and let him eat in silence, for it was clear he was weary and in need of rest and nourishment.

            “The ex-knight slept well that night, and labored over his task for eleven days in a modest apothecary above the wine cellar, hardly emerging for meals once a day. He did as Alice had suggested and burned half of the bundle in the small space, a sweet, delicate fragrance filling the room. The scent wrapped itself around van Sputten’s senses and clarified his focus. He thought he smelled a hint of sandalwood in the heady aroma which sent an electric jolt throughout his body and energized him afresh. Cook was delighted to feed his hungry guest and van Sputten tasked his companion with a special errand to bring the medicine to fruition. By the time the full moon came around, the whole fortress was buzzing with anticipation. They had never hosted a healer for so long before the princesses sent them away in failure.

            “Van Sputten waited until the moon was high in the sky and twilight was beginning to fall softly around the edges of the trees. At last, he and the steadfast cook made their way up to the royal chambers, rapping on the door with fresh linens, medicine, and candles in hand.

            “The princess who had been haloed by the sun on their first meeting opened the door. 

            “‘Good evening, your highness,’ van Sputten said somberly. ‘We have work to do. If your highness permits it—’

            “‘You have permission,’ she said quickly, ‘to do whatever you must. Elizabet and I have talked it over and are willing to try your cure in its entirety.’

            “Van Sputten bowed low and set to work pulling sheets, drapes, and the velvet curtains spooled around the princess’ bed frames. 

            “‘If your highnesses deem it permissible, please remove your garments and step into your cast iron tubs. Cook has filled them with warm water and left a cake of plain milk soap by each.’                 

“The princesses did as van Sputten suggested, stepping modestly behind two folding screens and slipping into the water. He and the cook pulled every single candle from its housing until the chamber was illuminated solely by a lantern which the two men had brought from the kitchen. The loyal chef bowed out of the chamber with the soiled linens, curtains, gloves, and boots, with one last wink at van Sputten. 

            “The medicine man opened the windows and lit the last half of the precious herb bundle. After walking the perimeter of the room, he left the smoldering plant upon the cleared table where he’d arranged his supplies.

            “‘If it pleases your highnesses, gently clean yourself from toes to fingertip to scalp. Imagine this is the last painful bath you’ll ever take, and hold that thought as true in your mind. Meantime, I will change the bedding and lay out fresh nightclothes for the both of you.’

            “He worked diligently and efficiently, wrapping fresh sheets around their feather mattresses and lighting fresh candles in the darkened room. 

            “‘This is the first bath I’ve ever taken with a strange man in the room,’ Elizabet said coyly from the other side of the room divider. 

            “‘Make no mistake, lady, this is a first for me too,’ van Sputten shot back amicably, tossing nightgowns over both folding dividers. He lit a small fire in the hearth and, placing a large kettle over the flames, he sat back in a wooden rocking chair and meditated as the girls cleaned their fragile skin. An undertone of sandalwood snaked through the room and van Sputten knew Alice was with them. 

            “When the girls had both reached for their fresh, cotton shifts and emerged from behind their privacy screens, van Sputten gestured to two wooden chairs near the fireplace with lambskin covers. Wordlessly, both women crossed the intimate space and sat. The kettle hissed pleasantly and van Sputten filled a small teapot which was swimming with forest herbs. An earthy aroma emanated from the spout as moonlight spilled through the window. Van Sputten poured the girls two large mugs, passing the water through a sieve to catch any plant matter before rising to close the open windows.

            “‘This tea,’ he said softly, aware of the tender space they had created together, ‘you must drink it every night once the sun goes down and until the next full moon.’

            “The two sipped on their tea gingerly while van Sputten fed and tidied the fire. The three of them shared the primal silence, firelight dancing over their faces as the girls sipped, and van Sputten sat back in his chair.

            “At length, the princesses finished their tea and, with a soft clink, set their empty mugs by the stone hearth. Van Sputten donned a pair of leather gloves and grasped a large jar of fresh honey in one hand and a poultice he’d pummeled with forest plants in the other. He kneeled in between the two women and looked up at them from his pose of servitude.

            “‘If m’ladies permit it,’ he whispered, ‘I’ll apply the medicine.’

Tune in tomorrow for the final chapter!

A Story For Paradise (Short Story Pt. I of III)

Part One

Inca had been in heaven for half an eternity. The waves crashed gently on the white beaches every day. The white linen dried softy in the sun every day. The white noise of creation hummed benevolently with the dawning of every day. Waving palm fronds and servant-fed grapes were starting to get a little dull. 

            “Elzoarah! Bethelbar! Fetch some spring water. I need to think.”

            Her servants curtsied and bowed and wordlessly went down the hedged dirt path to do as she bid.

            “Abrazek! Limizhad! Lower me and stop the caravan. We will wait and rest here for the others and eat. Thaedrus—tell me a story, and I will fill your dish.”

            She had Thaedrus’ full attention at this. 

            “Y—yes—as you wish, m’liege,” he stammered. 

            “Tell it swiftly,” marked Inca, “or I might not fill your dish after all.” Her nose wrinkled and she smiled without her eyes. It was more of a snarl, really. 

            Thaedrus cleared his throat to gather himself. “As you bid, m’liege,” he said, and took a breath. 

            “Once upon a time, in days long past and in lands long since conquered, a king lived with his two daughters.”

            “Christ.” 

            It was Abrazek who spoke, and he was hushed quickly by Limizhad. The two were arranging pillows around Inca’s eternally youthful frame. She looked at Abrazek sharply, who averted his eyes and mumbled, “Sorry, m’liege.”

            Thaedrus lowered his brows, cleared his throat, and spoke again.

            “The daughters, twins, had been born with a rare disease with no cure. Their mother died during labor. The fields were dry and barren that year, and the crops had meagre yields.”

            “Jesus.”

            This time it was Limizhad. He looked horrified by his own utterance, throwing a furtive glance at Inca with wide eyes. 

            “If you two don’t stop interjecting,” she hissed with a sickeningly sweet smile, “I will cut your tongues out of your head, broil them, pulverize them into a paste, and make you swallow said paste one miserable spoonful at a time.” She leaned back in her seat with satisfaction as her two attendants shivered. “Now,” she said, looking at Thaedrus, “continue.”

            “W-well,” Thaedrus faltered, “well—the king, in his grief, decreed that his two daughters be locked in a stone fortress built over a reflecting pool, in order to keep them safe from any threats the gods might bring forth. From the time they were weaned off their handmaid’s milk, they were kept in solitude but for a host of guards, two maids, and a cook. The king solicited witches and shamans, inventors and chemists, doctors and nurses and healers of all sorts, employing anyone who knew anything about medicine in the hopes of finding a cure for his daughters. But as the girls’ seventeenth birthday approached, their strength began to wane—they were losing the battle against their unusual disease, an affliction which caused the skin to roll back from the fingertips and toes to expose tender flesh and white bone beneath. The girls wore elbow-length gloves made of softest silk and knee-high elk skin boots to protect their fragile extremities; but it is exhausting to grow fresh tissue every day, especially for lonely princesses. The two sisters clung to each other like seaweed on damp skin, but their isolation gradually consumed them until they shriveled into nothing more than a pair of invalids sporting crown and royal attendants. That is, until the day Warlock van Sputten rode into their midst…”

            “Warlock van Sputten?” Abrazek echoed, but was silenced by a sharp throw of the elbow from Limizhad. If Inca heard, she paid them no mind. The story was lulling her into a gentler state, dulling some of her spikier edges. If she indeed heard the remark, she wanted more to hear the story than to hear her subservients’ screams.

            “And Mr. van Sputten,” Inca bellowed confidently, “Was he a knight?”

            “Indeed, your grace,” Thaedrus said, “but a fallen knight, at that. He’d spent the best years of his life serving and protecting a distant king, a great distributor of maize and cattle. But when his master changed industry to war and pillaging, he could not, in good conscience, carry out his bidding. He exiled himself from the kingdom to a life of eternal wandering, folding himself completely into the natural landscape, foraging for his meals, hand-crafting arrows for hunting, and never building shelter in the same place twice.”

            “I knew he was a knight,” Inca said loudly, “A knight. I knew it.”

            “A keen insight, your excellency,” Thaedrus said glibly, doing his best to iron any sarcasm out of his voice. “If m’liege wishes it, I’ll continue the tale?”

            “You may stop when I tell you to stop,” Inca said, a saccharine note of benevolence snaking its way through her voice. She tossed the loose hairs from her elaborate crown of braids out of her eyes and fluttered her lashes modestly.

            “Very good, your grace,” Thaedrus said. He took another deep breath, and then continued. “In van Sputten’s endless travel, he befriended a sorceress of power so great and of such ungodly sensitivity that she could feel the earth move as it rotated on its axis. As such, she too had chosen to live outside of the social bounds to lead a life of study. She dedicated herself to medicinal herbs and flowers, and kept powerful plants dried and woven in bundles of ribbon throughout her long black hair. Van Sputten fell madly in love the moment he saw her gathering water from the wild river, but she had no use for a husband. Regardless, the two shared knowledge and experience over nettle tea, homemade, crusted bread, and butter made of goat milk and garlic; a respectful kinship grew between them. She taught him medicine magic to take on his journeys, as well as how to communicate using only the eyes. He pledged to come to her aid should she ever need it, and, though she would only ever use it for a protective charm, he gave her a lock of his hair.”

            A small snore issued from the other side of the caravan. Limizhad was leaned against it and out of Inca’s eyesight, slumped over and snoozing. Thaedrus cleared his throat aggressively and the sleepy servant snapped awake, wiping drool from his chin and flying into high alert. When he realized Inca had not noticed his slip, he blinked at Thaedrus sheepishly, nodding and putting his hands in the air in an “I surrender” pose.

            With one stern eye on Limizhad, Thaedrus proceeded. “Her charm kept him safe from the untamed dangers of the natural world, but the love that he carried for the sorceress gave him the heart to carry on. He vowed to let his love guide him, so that he would no longer be governed by dissent. The forest opened up to him like a friend, and he set out to explore it. Many men had wandered through these woods, and many men had died of fatigue and want.”

            “But her charm held true, and the forest offered him nourishment at every turn—a fresh spring here, a rabbit there, and wild roots and camas and mushrooms and sweet berries dripping heavy from their vines. He ate like a king and for the first time in many years, he felt as though he were traveling towards something, not away.”

            “A good knight, then,” Inca clapped her hands together, her lips parted with rapt attention. “A knight with a heart of gold. Mmm!” She licked her lips at this and scooted forward in her seat, resting her elbows on her knees and perching her chin atop closed fists.

            “Erm—indeed,” Thaedrus said, resisting the urge to take a step back. “Van Sputten continued his foray deep into the forest where he discovered, to his surprise, a great stone fortress with a moat and drawbridge and guards posted at every turret.

            “‘Hallo, there!’ van Sputten called out, raising his sword hand above his head in a salute. It seemed everything was frozen in place, from the forest creatures to the guards. A moment passed that was so still and so silent, the exiled knight could hear the blood pumping in his ears.

            “‘Guards! Who is your master?’ he cried next as he stood beneath an enormous wooden drawbridge, so large and so heavy it required four men to operate it. ‘Upon whose land do I stand?’

            “‘His majesty King Walden III of Umbledunn!’ came the leery reply. ‘We’ve not had a visitor nigh on thirteen years.’

            “‘I am a traveler,’ van Sputten called out, stretching the truth just slightly, ‘and would enjoy a place to rest my head and taste a night’s deep slumber. I have traveled very far,’ he added, wondering how much to tell the guards so that they might let him in.

            “‘No honest travelers dare venture through these woods,’ the guard called back, ‘just scamps and miscreants and thieves. That’s why his royal majesty’s got us guardfolk protecting the—I mean, that’s why we’re here!’ From somewhere within the stony edifice, someone coughed pointedly.

            “The guard clearly thought he’d revealed too much. Warlock overheard what sounded like heated deliberation between two men standing above him. At last, one of them shouted, ‘Right! Leave your weapons outside. You’ll sleep in our quarters tonight, so uh—no funny business, eh?’

            “‘You have my word, good sirs!’ Van Sputten held his arms out and bowed low as a sign of deference. He pulled the sword and dagger from his hip and boot and piled them with his quiver and bow on the bank of the moat; he stepped back with his hands clasped above his head as the drawbridge lowered.”

            “D’you really think the guards would have let ‘im in?” Abrazek gasped, causing Inca to whirl around and slap him on the arm.

            “Do not test me, peasant,” she growled, “or the lunchtime fire will serve to collect juices from your roasting severed body parts. Maybe there’s some anatomy south of your tongue I could easily remove…” She raised her eyebrows suggestively and, reaching into the folds of her toga she retrieved a small piece of charcoal usually reserved for blacking her eyes. She drew two bold lines on Abrazek’s forehead.

            “There,” she said, clapping her hands together to remove any powdery residue. “Three strikes and you’ll never speak again.”

            “Oof,” said Limizhad.

            “Hold your tongue before I remove it!” Inca cried, swiveling in her seat and grasping Limizhad by the ear. “You now have two strikes against you as well!” She drew two lines on his forehead before throwing the charcoal back into its deep pocket.

            “Perhaps if we took some tree sap, m’lady,” Thaedrus suggested mildly, “and glued their mouths shut?”

            “Weak little snakes!” Inca huffed. “A cosmically small amount of self-restraint should not be too much for a master to ask. Other goddesses behead their subordinates for lesser offenses! If these nimrods can carry me around the sweeping expanse of the celestial realm day after eternal day, they can keep quiet for ten measly minutes! I mean, honestly!” She crossed her arms and glared at her footmen, both of whom were drawing small circles in the impossibly verdant, ceaselessly dewy grass with their toes.

            “So…er—permission to speak, mistress?” Abrazek whispered.

            “What is it?” Inca roared.

            “Would m’lady like us to make a fire and prepare a noontime meal?” He looked at her from underneath a wince.

            “OF COURSE, YOU DOLTS!” She really was screaming at the top of her lungs. “THAT IS THE WHOLE REASON WHY WE STOPPED.”

            “Oh,” Limizhad said dimly, “I thought we stopped because you needed to think.”

            “Oh, for divinity’s sake,” Inca cried, clapping her hand to her forehead. She pointed two fingers at a nearby cypress, and with a dramatic exhale, flames shot from her fingertips and the tree burst into flames.

            “Just hang the rack of lamb from a branch,” she murmured, and massaged her temples as her footmen scrambled around her.

            After nearly an hour of preparation, the servants managed to assemble fresh rolls and herb butter, slices of ripe tomato and soft cheese, wedges of juicy melon and pomegranate, and roast lamb with mint chutney and yogurt dipping sauce. Inca sighed theatrically and held out her empty chalice, which Abrazek and Limizhad fought over each other to fill with sweet summer wine. 

            “A woody red really would’ve been better,” Inca said, her mouth full of flesh. “Would’ve paired nicely with the lamb. Still,” she chewed, taking a hearty slug of wine, “it’s not bad.”

            “Would it please your grace if I continued the story?” Thaedrus asked timidly.

            “Finish your story and you may clean my plate,” Inca said. “Your friends are not so lucky.” She shot menacing looks at her other subordinates and tossed a lamb bone in their direction. They scrambled for it and tousled, but Abrazek, being the larger of the two, pinned Limizhad under his knee, cracked the bone open, and hungrily drank down the meager amount of marrow. A small sheen of sweat appeared on Thaedrus’ forehead, which he nervously sponged away with the edge of his garment.

            “As the gracious lady bids,” he said, swallowing his discomfort. “Hm…where was I?”

            “The idiot guards let van Sputten into the fortress,” Inca said, tossing another dirty look at the other two servants to pontificate her summary.

            “Ah, yes,” Thaedrus said. “M’liege is as concise as she is well-mannered. Well. The—perhaps we shall say ‘simple’ guards—let van Sputten into the fortress. It was well-crafted and surprisingly warm, van Sputten thought, for being made of stone and existing deep in the shade of the dark woods. Ornate tapestries lined the walls and there was a hearth with crackling fire in every room. Kindly, the cook insisted on feeding his ‘guest’ and laid out a platter of salted ham, sour bread, and hard cheeses with a hearty mug of ale to wash it down. Van Sputten ate gratefully, cleaned his plate and drained his glass. The cook beamed at him from the hearth as he stirred a rich stew, aromas of thyme and meat and spiced wine filling the kitchen.

            “‘Sir ‘as no idear ‘ow pleased Ah yam to feed a soul what wants t’ wheat,” he said amicably. ‘Most days Ah canna get ther’ royal ‘ighnesses t’ wheat but crumbs and sips o’ warm wa’er.’

            “‘Your generosity of spirit is a welcome change of pace for a weary wanderer,” van Sputten said. ‘Thank you.’ He spun his empty mug on the tabletop, wondering just how nosy to be.

            “‘If it pleases you to speak to me,’ he said slowly, leaning back in his seat, ‘I would like to know who you attend here.’

            “‘Don’ see why Ah canna tell you tha’,’ the cook pondered aloud. ‘Ye seem well-bred enough. ’Tis my yonor t’serve ‘is royal ‘ighness’ two sickleh daugh’ers, Genevieve an’ Elizabet, or Gen an’ Lizzy, as Ah calls ‘em. Righ’ sweet girls, bu’ sicker’n sick.’ He paused here, and his brows knit together with worry. After several moments of contemplation, he seemed to completely forget his guest, lost to his fretting. Van Sputten cleared his throat gently. 

            “‘Ah, me! Righ’. A’ any stretch, ‘is majesteh sought t’ keep ‘is daugh’ers safe whilst ‘e looked fer a cure. ‘Igh and low, ‘e searched. Best ‘e could do was send ‘em ‘ere, with th’ fresh air. Too sickleh fer socializin’, or courtship besides. Poor things,” he added, casting a furtive glance towards the door.

            “‘Hm,’ van Sputten mused. ‘This king. What is his promised reward to whomever finds the cure?’

            “‘Ach! Sir, b’tween yous and me—Ah don’ fink ‘e ‘as a limit. Move ‘eaven and earth fer ‘is girls, ‘e would.’ His voice broke at this and he stared hard into his stew, blinking back tears.

            “Van Sputten’s mind began to spin with possibilities. Might this king welcome him into his kingdom if he saved his daughters? Might his honor be restored after all these years? Might his endless wandering, at last, cease?

            “‘The girls,’ van Sputten said at length. ‘May I see them? I have some training in herbal medicine and may be able to be of service.’ His heart spasmed slightly to think of the magic woman he wished to hold, and a shadow passed over his brow. He kept his silence, however, and let his proposal breathe. After a moment of considering the king’s good favor should he connect his daughters to their cure, the happy chef granted van Sputten’s wish.

            “He whipped up two quick sandwiches from the salted ham and cheese and sour bread, filled two small glasses with mulled wine, arranged the food with a small vase of flowers from the windowsill on a wooden tray and, withdrawing a candle from a cupboard and lighting it in the fireplace, the cook lead the curious traveler through several ornately furnished chambers. White cloths were draped over the amenities and it was clear they saw little use, though van Sputten could tell the king had spared no expense on his daughters’ lodgings. The pair walked down a long, dimly lit hallway and climbed a spiral staircase, which was illuminated impressively by a single sky light.

            “As they made their way to the second story, distant piano music trickled over them, growing louder as they made their way down the long passage, which was comparatively well-lit by sunlight sifting through tree limbs and onto the cobbled floor. The melody twinkled and bounced across the surface of the stone, and van Sputten thought it sounded strangely familiar though he could not place its origin. By the time the two men reached the dark wooden door at the end of the hallway, the ex-knight was humming along.

            “‘Righ’,’ the cook said, turning to face van Sputten. ‘Ah’ll go firs’ an’ prepare th’ ladies. If they don’ wan’ teh sees ye, then tha’s i’, Ah’m afrai’. ’S mah duteh to do as ther ‘ighnesses bid,” he added somewhat sheepishly. He rapped curtly on the wooden door, and the piano music stopped.

            “‘Cookie?’ a sweet voice called from the other side of the door. ‘Is that you?’

            “‘Yes, m’ladeh,’ the cook shouted back. ‘Ah yave crusts o’ bread fer ye.’

Tune in tomorrow for the second installment!

Edna’s Ordinary Shift

The lights flickered on.

Edna had never cared for the color purple, yet here it was, everywhere: splattered indelicately over every surface of the employee break room like a penitent party popper, draped purple doilies and purple pleather fighting with purple sponge in the sink containing dirty purple dishes. Edna sniffed, and flipped the switch again. She would find another spot to eat, even if she had to leave the building.

It was a brisk December evening. The streets were bustling as those clocking off scrambled to finish their last-minute Christmas shopping.

Her lettuce was soggy. With disgust, she threw the homemade sandwich in the trash. Nothing tastes good when it sits in a fridge too long, she mused. She touched her necklace as she stepped back inside the building.

She needed coffee so she poured a cup from the employee well, sipping from a lavender mug with barely concealed disdain. The brown liquid tasted papery, like an old Bible left out in the rain.

Her shift seemed to extend past the horizon. Edna could not see beyond the limits of her pay grade, though she desperately wanted a raise. More than a raise, she wanted recognition. She wanted the world to acknowledge the hours she’d sacrificed, wanted some goddamn recompense. 

She slugged her coffee through pursed lips and scowled her mug into the sink. It was finally time to clock out.

The air was cold as she walked to the bus. Everyone else seemed to have someone to walk with. Edna stopped on the sidewalk beside an abandoned store front and looked at her reflection in the dark glass. The window was warped and gave a funhouse effect to her visage, making it appear as though her reflection had blue eyes. Blue eyes! Edna thought. God, how different my life would have been if I’d been born with blue eyes!

Edna was by no means an attractive woman. She had thick brows which nearly wove together, a strong nose and jaw, a downy upper lip true to her Mediterranean lineage, and a mole on her chin which was beginning to sprout long, black hairs. With one last look at her reflection, she pulled herself away from the window. If only…

The bus arrived late in typical fashion, Edna thought. The doors hissed open to the frigid street and Edna was struck by an unmistakable warmth issuing from their folds. The bus was illuminated in a blue light, and as she mounted the steps she felt as though she were stepping into Atlantis. The doors hissed shut behind her.

She looked around for a seat. A woman was reading the newspaper in the middle of the bus. Even though she never looked up from the print, Edna got the distinct impression the woman had sized her up. Defiantly, she walked to the center of the bus and sat opposite her, plotting to read the outside of her paper as she waited to be carried home.

“Long day?” came a friendly voice from behind the print. It swelled out of the black and white pages like a hot spring, gurgling with measured joy as if it were on the cusp of saying something very funny.

Edna snapped to attention. “Yeah,” she sighed at length. “I guess you could say that.”

“And it just got longer,” the woman said, pointedly folding her newspaper in two and looking down the road ahead. Edna followed her gaze to see a long line of cars backed up, red brake lights reflecting off her dark pupils.

“Darn,” Edna growled. “I wonder if there was an accident.”

“’Tis the season, eh?” The woman smiled, light eyes gazing over glasses at Edna.

“I’m Edna.” She did not know where the extroversion was coming from, but she found herself extending her hand. “Who are you?”

“My name’s Felicity.” She shook her hand with gusto. “It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Edna. I don’t say this to surprise you, but it seems we are kindred spirits.”

Edna was shocked into releasing a small chuckle. Her laugh grumbled out of her throat and sounded like rust. “What makes you say that?”

“Your necklace,” Felicity smiled. “I have one just like it at home.”

The two sat in silence for a moment. With a start, Edna realized a gentle warmth had crept over her and began to fill the vehicle. The gaudy pattern on the fabric seats looked extra vibrant as she became aware, again, that she was one of three souls trying to get home.

“Can you believe that missionary who was killed by that indigenous tribe off the coast in southeast Asia?” Felicity asked. “Can you imagine anything so offensive?”

“It’s a shame,” Edna agreed, feeling her cheeks flush. “A pointless waste.”

Felicity nodded slowly, lost to the world outside the bus.

“Is it far to your house?” Edna suddenly felt like interviewing Felicity. A hundred questions squeezed up from somewhere deep inside and demanded to burst forth.

“No,” Felicity said with a click of her tongue, “we’re nearly there already.”

Their bodies swayed in the stop and go motion of the bus and Edna swallowed her curiosity, and was silent.

Felicity folded her newspaper into eighths and flung it across the aisle. 

“Catch!”

Edna’s right hand snatched through the air and made purchase. She was surprised at her own dexterity.

“Took a chance there, did you?” She laughed like a runner who had just chosen to sprint without stretching. “I can’t believe I caught that.”

“Me neither,” Felicity rolled the words slowly, ponderously out of her mouth. “But then again I’m not that surprised.” She winked at Edna playfully, then said, “There’s an article on the back page with a really killer recipe for a traditional blueberry tart. I’m a baker,” she added with another smile.

“Oh,” Edna said. “Where do you work?”

“Chez moi!” Felicity laughed again, and the vehicle rang with excitement. “I’m not a professional!” 

The bus lurched to a stop and Felicity stood up.

“This is me. It was nice to meet you, Edna!” She tucked her short, grey-brown hair behind her ear and gathered her belongings.

“Th-thank you,” Edna stammered. “The recipe looks delicious.”

“It is delicious, dear,” Felicity said emphatically. “It’s the reason to get out of bed in the morning.”

With that, she alighted the bus steps and stepped into the cloak of the street. Edna held the newspaper all the way home, touching her necklace as she did so.

“Jesus Christ,” she said aloud. “What a lady.”

small town connection

the town is grey-blue.

grey-blue billows out of bushes and sidewalks

the wind pushes it around and birds use it 

to get high.

the town is silently clamoring

full of sound and void

Change caterpillars through generations,

eating and leaving behind.

freedom hopscotches up the road

I can feel its exponential approach

as I wait 

suspended

for the moment of contact

Mary’s Bad Day

Day swelled gently into Mary’s consciousness. The violence she associated with morning was a non sequitur, as her alarm clock was the real crook. Time itself seemed fluid and made of light in the morning. The darker it was when she woke, the less time it would take to get ready (but the more energy it would take to get out of bed). It always seemed to come down to a battle of time and energy.

Mary had not been to the doctor in months. The office had called, tactfully finding a polite way to tell her she was overdue for a visit. It took Mary three weeks after that to call and schedule a real appointment. She imagined the front desk ladies snapping little party poppers and breaking open a bottle of champagne, enthusiastically circling the date on their calendars. Mary was pleased to be the source of any celebration.

She pulled into the lot with nine minutes to spare. Not bad, considering she encountered some unexpected cat sick to clean up on her way out the door. Three bodies was just too many for one small apartment.

The waiting room was fairly clean, and Mary found herself absently organizing the disheveled magazines as she waited. Apparently Buddy Graham, everyone’s favorite country singer, was having an extramarital affair. Mary made a mental note of this as she leaned back into her chair and pulled out more wholesome reading from her bag.

“Mary?”

Mary stood and gathered herself. Taking a breath, she followed the nurse and took a seat on the wax-paper bench. The wait was her least favorite part.

The LED lights were harsh in the white cell, and a sharps container hung on the wall, red label looking particularly dramatic, Mary thought. She found herself leafing through the brochures in the plastic stands and was just beginning to wonder if she had perhaps contracted syphilis without knowing it when there came a sharp rap at the door.

“Come in,” Mary said, placing the brochure title-side down on the counter.

“Mrs Cutter,” said the man, slipping inside the white room, “it’s a pleasure to have you back.” 

“I had hoped to give the front desk ladies some cause for celebration.”

“Ah, yes. And Mr Cutter?” he asked politely.

“Quiet,” Mary replied, “but enjoying God’s embrace!”

“Indeed,” frowned the man. “Well, I suppose we best get right to the chase.”

“Please,” Mary said, opening her palms to him.

“It’s been about six months since we last spoke, is that correct?”

Mary did some quick math. 

“Yes,” she said, “and?”

“Are you still hearing voices?” 

The question shocked the air, grasping for emotional purchase.

“Not quite—no!” Mary said quickly. “It’s like intuition, not voices—I’m not hysterical,” she added.

“Mm-hmm,” the doctor replied languidly. “I’m afraid, Mrs Cutter, that we are going to have to try a new medication for you. If there’s any chance at all you are still hearing things, we have to press forward. Yours is a condition which we really can’t allow to run away from us. Besides, I hate to see you so agitated.” He gestured with one hand at her after adjusting his glasses, and began to scribble furiously on a white piece of paper. The sharps box screamed at Mary from above the sink, red plastic practically dripping down the white wall.

“Fine—just fine,” Mary said, a little tersely. “I understand completely.”

For about fifteen solid seconds, there wasn’t a sound in the room but the ticking of the clock and the sound of the doctor’s pen on his notepad.

“There,” he said at last, handing her the new prescription. “Don’t take more than the prescribed amount, and be sure not to miss any days. You’re free to go.”

Mary stood and placed her bag over her shoulder. She was halfway out the door when the doctor called.

“Mary,” he said, “Don’t wait so long for us to meet again, hm? Let’s make this a monthly habit.”

“God willing,” Mary said, and left.

Mary pulled into her apartment complex parking lot with new prescription in hand. Her cat was there to greet her when she pushed open the door.

“Shelly, you stinky beast,” Mary cooed, “What rotten thing have you been eating?” She shook a white pill from the bottle, drank it with eight ounces of filtered water, and laughed and laughed and laughed.

a few thoughts about romantic partnerships, love, and loss in pandemic times

Like many people right now, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking.

Thinking about the way I think, having anxious thoughts, depressed thoughts, happy thoughts, fleeting whims, thoughts about how we culturally spend our time when things are “normal,” thoughts about relationships and the kind of person I want to be, and the direction I want to carry myself, thoughts about art and food and music and money and fame and love, all the ways there are to love. It’s been a lot of thoughts.

I found out yesterday that one of my favorite “celebrity couples” has separated. I usually turn my nose up at tabloids blaring celebrity news, and have very little interest, typically, in Hollywood. This particular pair, though, are both artists with cult followings who have a certain kind of homegrown fame which keeps them out of the tabloids and therefore inside of my interest. I’ve often looked on their relationship as one to aspire to, a model of creativity and equality between a male-bodied person and a female-bodied person which is rarely demonstrated in society. In short, following their life and their burgeoning family showed me that another way of operating was possible, beautiful, and attainable. Their partnership inspired me in a lot of ways: as a human, a woman, a musician, an incorrigible questioner of the status quo, and as someone who occasionally interacts with kids.

I don’t know if it’s because COVID has me feeling like a freshly molted crab, but for some reason, I took the news of their parting kind of hard, dwelling on it (against my better judgement) for the last 24 hours. I spent the better part of yesterday wondering why I couldn’t let the fact of their splitting go, why it threw me in a funk. I snapped up any information available from his stanch social media feed, wondering at his needs and wishing him well. I waded through her blog feeling her hurt and trying not to speculate on things that I will never know, or understand, or have any control over. A little piece of my heart broke with them.

It turns out, this is a celebrity couple I actually give a damn about, though I have never met either of them. Consuming art over an extended period of time gives you the illusion of knowing the artist, however, a phenomenon as “real” as any flesh-and-blood relationship. Artist and audience have a unique bond, a kind of call and response relationship, a game of mirrors. Both of these artists have held mirrors up which spoke to vulnerable, secret parts of me that I was unaware I was hiding. They have both buoyed me up, carried me, dusted me off, vindicated me, urged me forward. To say I feel their pain may seem like hyperbole, but…I am feeling their pain.

This is a hard time for everyone. Because life happens, and it certainly doesn’t give a damn if it’s an inconvenient time, I’m aware people are divorcing their spouses, wrestling with their children, dealing with suicides, watching their loved ones die, losing their jobs, struggling to pay their bills…there are lots of things going wrong right now. Not everyone is as public with their grief.

But this makes me curious: why the secrecy with grief? Some people grow uncomfortable by those who share their raw feelings with others. It is ill-advised in some circles. Button your lip, get through the steps, see a therapist, take medication, get back to work. Whatever you do, don’t air your dirty laundry.

For a couple of artists whose livelihoods rely on fans consuming their content, they’ve both been rather taciturn about any details of their separation. Were it a different pair of fairly-famous people, I might assume some angry “breakup art” would be in the works. Given the disposition of both of them, and everything they’ve shared about the nature of their relationship and the family they’ve built, however, it may not shake out this way. One of them is extremely private, and other is, well, a sharer. These are two different ways of being which can work beautifully together, or can totally devastate each other. I am hoping so much that they work out a loving space for their son to grow within and to hold each other inside of as time goes on. I have faith in both of them, respectively and together.

I guess I’m writing this because of something a professor once said to me in class: “every hero is just someone else’s villain.” No matter how “perfect” a couple may seem, there are always problems–problems lurking and percolating, shrinking and growing with attention, or lack thereof. “Speak no evil” doesn’t always work, but neither does “let’s talk this out.” Communication doesn’t always land the way we hope; sometimes silence really is best…sometimes it’s deadly.

I guess the best we can hope for is a partner who stands their ground but is conscious of this fact–that no matter how ugly things might seem, there is always an alternative perspective. How much faith do you have in each other? The extent to which you “see” the other person and what you “don’t see” are of equal importance. May we all find a collaborator, co-conspirator, and life partner who sets us aflame and pushes us; but may we all find within ourselves that clear spring of compassion, a tender meadow where we hold space for everything that we don’t understand about the person we hope to understand most of all.

spring blossoms/COVID-19

The trees are blooming. Apple, cherry, plum… Petals are fluttering everywhere, over lawns, sidewalks, porches, tripping over themselves as they loop pinwheels across pavement with fickle springtime breezes.

It is a strange time to be alive. Bearing witness to such a glorious spring marks a divine touch. The beauty is grounding me; the flowers have been such a great comfort. Even little glimpses of tender pink and white buds sends a thrill through me as I go about my day, and I feel so grateful to live in a place where trees flourish. I don’t remember ever noticing a spring quite like this.

It’s been surprisingly warm so far this season as well, which has bode well for those of us locked in tight quarters during this pandemic. Every time I leave the house, I see a litany of folks walking dogs, out for runs or bike rides, playing with their children in the yard. I am beginning to wonder: are these sights which I’ve simply tuned out, or are they really that much more common, now that the world is “locked down”? Perspective has such a funny way of painting our memory.

Aside from gawking salaciously at the natural world around me, I’ve been spending a frankly silly amount of time on the New York Times’ cooking app, filling my days with dreaming of the coming night’s dinner. Some highlights from the week include ginger sesame halibut, perfect Swedish meatballs, and irresistible oatmeal cookie “whoopee pies.” I’m sure I’m not alone in this, but I am definitely gaining weight this quarantine.

And while I haven’t spent as much time as I’d like exercising, I have consistently been writing for the past few days. I’m hoping to channel pent up energy into art. I know I’m not alone there, either. I’ve seen a lot of really amazing content on social media feeds. I’m finding all kinds of inspiration in the folks I follow, and have been remembering (pretty well) to keep my head up.

My thoughts still swim in circles over the same dead moments, but infusions of apple blossom scent and seasonal rain have been sweet interruptions to the thoughts which are continuously trying to kill me.

I still snooze my alarm in the mornings, but I am paring down on the number of times I hit the button. Change is a day-by-day process. We will get through this. Look for beauty! It’s everywhere right now, battling against fear.

Sappho, Our Lady Of Longing

Love, that great deceiver

that great door-slammer, that great window-opener

that great-great-carpenter,

that great-great-great-oarsman,

honing rippling forearms and bulging

pectorals, straining

hard against the temptation

of violence, rowing

predator over water under

sky. blue

is the color of heartbreak, dead

is the shade of life sprouting

upwards out of shiny

shed snakeskin, two round

holes where the eyes once were.

the eyes once were so

wet, so dark, so

important

they saw nothing but Love

already growing fresh

under sloughed skin,

tender green fighting

for emergence under

weight of deadly

dark.

Love germinates, ruminates,

obfuscates itself into oblivion, lovingly

confounding those who love

to wonder, wondering why some

do not dare

?

Love the rototiller, Love the praying mantis,

Love the jungle cat just bored enough to kill–

Cupid, merciless slaughterer, deranged and

happy, triggering chaos in the name of highest

order, leaking doubts into the hourglass, feasting

every night on hot, young

flesh. fresh red meat hung

in the window of

Love The Butcher

every romantic’s worst

nightmare/daydream, sickest

fever at normal body temp, slowest

most painful hello-and-goodbye…

feelings are fleeting if not caught

just so. Love

reminds us not to remember too well,

or eyes will well and turn so wet,

dark, important

green fighting dark in Love’s most aliveness,

life and love fighting, ruthless, endless

hearty in murder, exquisite in torture, us conned

into the epicenter once more by

feathered display and a free first hit. Genes

have nothing to do with it, chemicals

don’t even come close:

it’s that damned little freak with the arrows

bringing mankind to its ruin

so we might at last

cry.

then pray

)violently(

to grow