Do not fear the silence. For those who hold their tongues let loose their minds.
Tempted in the Wilderness
Hunger steadily gnawed at me. I had wandered into this wilderness forty days ago, a vibrant young man and now what was left? Nothing but bones held together by the sun warped skin that hung loosely about them. Who would recognize me now? Certainly, my own father would even have trouble seeing his son behind these sunken eyes. A low groan sounded in the pit of my very being. How much longer was I to wait?
A gentle breeze pushed at my back: a simple gesture of encouragement no doubt. I took a deep breath. The dry air was infused with fragrances both sweet and savory mingling together. A mouth I long thought had dried watered and a pang shot through my gut. I turned toward the source and laid my eyes upon her for the first time.
She was a sun kissed beauty with skin the color of caramel and hair as black as the tents of Tarsus. It fell in waves and ended in curls that lifted their heads to heaven above. Her eyes flashed mahogany and were rimmed in dark kohl. She had lips full and moist, painted in crimson to match the silken tunic clinging to her supple form. She lay between two rocks, arms propped up on either side as if she were lounging on a plush cushion. Surrounding her were warm breads, roasted lamb, various nuts, figs, raisins, sweet pomegranates, and a musky wine.
Her lips pulled back into a smile exposing teeth whiter than a dove’s breasts. “You must be famished.” She spoke, her voice floated like the melody of a lyre. “Come, Son of God, and dine with me. Your father has allowed you to wither down to nothing. Eat at my table and live.” She raised a jeweled chalice to her lips and waited my response.
I placed an arm around my midsection to quiet the demands my stomach. It thrashed in defiance and roared. I bent trying to subdue the beast and shut my eyes tight. “No.” It came out in a whisper. I grit my teeth and continued, “It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone.” Another revolt, my knuckles turned white clenching my soiled tunic. “But by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Sweet relief washed over me and I stood.
Her face fell flat. “So be it.” With a wave of her arms the feast dissolved to dust. She leapt toward me and in a moment, we stood on the pinnacle of the temple in the holy city. The warmth of her arm wrapped around my waist and her breath was hot upon my ear. “Can you fly, Son of God? Jump, for is it not written that He will command his angels concerning you? Will they not catch you and raise you high?” Her voice trilled with delight.
She ran a nail from the base of my neck down to my lower back. Pricks of coolness tickled my scalp; fogging my brain. One step and I would be free of her grasp for yes, the angels would catch me and set me down somewhere far from her touch. “Again no.” I searched for my boldness through the fog. “It is written, You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”
The world whipped around me and the city faded from view. We stood on an impossibly tall mountain and before us were all the kingdoms of the world: past, present, and future. They glistened like gold before us. My breath caught in my throat, never had I seen such a sight.
She stepped close pressing her soft flesh to mine. Her hair smelled of almond and her skin was like silk as she brushed a loose strand of hair out of my face. She looked up at me, the warmth from her whispers falling on my exposed neck. “This can all be yours, Son of God. Kneel before me and be mine and I will give you all of this and more.”
My heart thundered in my chest and I was certain she could feel it reverberating through her own. The warmth of her body, sweet scent, melodic voice, and silken touch sent my mind spinning. This wasn’t the plan. What was the plan again? I closed my eyes and pleaded, Father help me. A wind swept through my mind and cleared it of debris. My eyes opened with fierce determination. My lips parted ready to speak, to rebuke. No sound escaped them for in one swift movement she stretched up on tip toes and her mouth captured my own.
weight on the scale,
and so on.
back and forth;
the weights dissolve.
The Ferryman’s Daughter
Note: This was in response to a challenge emailed to me by my favorite author. Write a story in 30 minuets with no more than 300 words. We had to use the first line he provided and throw in a kiss. This is the final product.
The young man gaped at me with something between wonder and terror in his eyes. "How'd you do that?" he stammered. I listened to the soft patter of water dripping onto the tile in my bathroom. A few moments ago our feet had been firmly planted behind the thick yellow line of Platform 3. I searched my mind for an explanation that would ease his frazzled mind but none came and so my lips took charge and the truth spilled from them.
“My father is Charon.” I searched his eyes for understanding but found none. “Charon the one who ferries souls across the river Styx, he is my dad. I know it sounds crazy but it’s true and now we need to get moving.” I tossed him a towel, grabbed one for myself and hurried out the door into my bedroom.
The struggle to remove my wet clothes only added tinder to the fire of my frustration. “So, what exactly happened back there?” he grumbled. I tossed a set of his “stay over” clothes at him and wrapped the towel around my hair.
“I opened a portal, we fell through into the river, which runs below everything, and came out here.”
“Why are we in such a hurry?” he asked as he emerged fully dressed. Pulling my shirt over my head I rounded the corner of the bed and stood before him. I stood on my toes, kissed his cheek, and whispered in his ear.
“There are rules. Your temper and my love for you forced me to break those rules. Now they will be coming for us.” I pulled away and watched his expression as his brain worked to process this new information. With a heavy sigh he grabbed his gym bag, dumped its contents, and began to pack.
I woke up this morning and was no longer an idea tucked away into the recesses of his dark mind. There he was, the stool on which he sat hunched his back till his shoulders ate away his neck. A single light hung above us casting shadows over his pallid face; leaving the rest of the world in oblivion. His concentrated gazed flickered from me, to the pallet in his hand, and back again. A cocktail of anxiety and madness kept his eyes wide and unblinking. His hands worked confidently and the brush glided over me like a skater on untouched ice.
I could feel myself begin to take form. My body curved and stretched and swirled with the surrounding paint. My eyes were wide like my creator’s and two cool hands rested on my elongated cheeks. I watched his brush dab and mix together reds, oranges, yellows, blues, and browns. How I longed to turn in my two dimensional form and survey the masterpiece taking shape around me. Finally, with a thin brush and a quick stroke I had a mouth and the banshee cry I had left behind in the dark abyss reverberated through my being once more.
Dante's inferno sears the veins;
igniting vessels,scrambling the cerebral cortex.
Jutting tree limbs peel back like the palace guard making way for their queen. A narrow cobblestone path slices through an intimidating forest. I follow it blindly. What choice do I have? Affliction dissolves here like the cube of sugar in my evening tea; dispersing and thinning until it has become one with its environment. In this I find comfort. I move without the use of known muscles; propelled forward by some unseen force like a discarded grocery bag caught in an icy breeze. It brings me to a place shrouded in a gray fog, the air clings to me like shrink wrap does to raw chicken. Willow trees stand before a split in the earth and bend low; prostrated with grief. A bridge, constructed of rotted driftwood and moss ridden rope, spans the gap between earths; and there he stands. A wheat-haired boy in a tattered tunic fashioned with a single leather belt. His eyes are blue like a frozen concoction picked up at a convenient store and lack their natural dark centers. Everything is still; everything is silent. His soft pallid hand is stretched towards me, palm up in beggar’s fashion, aching for the two coins weighing heavy in my own fisted grip.
The Books Never Lie
The world around me had become surreal as I sat at his desk. The leather chair caressed me in all the wrong places but I was not the usual occupant. The faint smell of cigar smoke and old cologne lingered in the stagnant air. The skies had gone gray and began to weep as if they too missed him as I did. I turned from my reflection in the smooth cherry wood desk and surveyed the books stacked high, resting neatly on the shelves that encompassed all four walls of the study; my reason for being here.
LOCAL PROFESSOR KILLED BY DRUNK DRIVER.
I could see the headline, like crystal, in the back of my mind. The images beneath it had invaded my dreams turning them to nightmares for the past week. My father didn’t deserve to die like that and so soon. He had been a pillar of the community: coaching the local boy’s lacrosse team, offering tutoring sessions to kids in need free of charge, volunteering monthly at the shelter, and his generous donations to the church provided them with a new youth center. His funeral was crowded with people from all walks of life. Words of praise and adoration readily danced on their lips. Tears, from some endless source, welled in my eyes. A fluttering caused me to wrap a tender arm around my abdomen.
My husband and I had never cared much about knowing the gender of our soon to be children. We would love them and that was that. We already had one of each and had decided we would keep this child’s gender a secret and be surprised at their birth. In that moment, I longed for another little boy so I could give my father one last honor by naming my son after the greatest man I knew. My father would never get to hold him, or take him to a baseball game, or read to him in that deep gentle voice. It pained me to think of all the events and holidays that would pass without him and the hole this would leave in my memories to come. The child kicked yet again, a soft reminder to stop dwelling on what would never be and to get started on the task at hand.
These books were my father’s life. His passion for literature was second only to his love for me; his only child. My mother had died in a rare incident during my birth; it had been just me, him, and these books my entire life. I remember watching his eyes illuminate and hearing the tenderness in his voice when he spoke of Emerson, Elliot, and Shakespeare. It is why I, too, pursued a degree in literature. Now, it was up to me to decide which books came home with me and which were to be donated to the university library, as per the instructions in his last will and testament. There must be hundreds of volumes to sort through. The task would take all day and so I began.
An hour passed, then two, then three. Two ever growing piles started to form on the Persian rug. I worked steadily, keeping books that held precious memories that I would one day share with my children and giving away books I already owned or could be of use for scholarly research. I pulled the books, one by one, leaving behind bare shelves like a buzzard picking a carcass clean. My arms tired and feet began to ache but I persevered. I didn’t want to have to come back tomorrow to finish the job.
When the shelves were clear I began to work on the cabinets located beneath them. Here he kept rare books and his own attempts at multiple unfinished novels. Most of these would find their home in the university under tempered glass for all to admire. The manuscripts I would keep for myself. I handled these books like they were delicate artifacts from an ancient civilization; admiring them and taking extra precautions in their protection.
In the last cabinet I found no books, no real books anyway, just their shells and a camera. It was an old polaroid camera, the kind that prints a picture instantly. I had never seen my father use one of these before. We always had our pictures done professionally or took our own film to be developed at a photo center. I set the archaic camera aside, perhaps my five-year-old would find joy snapping pictures later. I grabbed one of the boxes made to look like a giant volume of Gray’s Anatomy. I opened it, a phantom serpent coiled around my stomach and constricted. The book fell from my hands and snapped shut. I shot up on shaky legs and immediately collapsed into the nearest leather chair.
My breath came rapidly as if I had just finished the Boston marathon and I struggled to catch it. My mind reeled; wondering if what it had seen was true and trying to make sense of it all. I ran my fingers repeatedly through my dark hair and mumbled to myself; telling myself to relax. I slowly worked up the courage to look a second time and gain some concrete knowledge. Sliding to the floor, not trusting my legs, I crawled over to the box. With unsteady hands and a thundering heart, I pulled back the lid once more.
Inside were pictures, countless pictures.
I wanted to see images of my mother, of a time before I existed, when she was young and beautiful and untouched by the grave. There were no pictures of my mother, only children. Bile rose in my throat and I squeezed my eyes tight forcing it back down.
When the threat was neutralized I opened my eyes and found myself staring into the faces of dozens of boys. They were all boys. Boys with blond hair and brown hair and thick black curls. Boys with scrapes on their knees and missing front teeth. Boys with freckles. Boys with pale skin, copper skin, with farmer’s tans and sunburns. Boys I knew from my childhood and ones I had never met before. Their eyes were blue, brown, hazel, black, and they all started at the camera pleading and ashamed. Eyes calling out for mercy; humiliated and betrayed. In the white space at the base of each photo was their name and the date written in my father’s hand. I closed the box.
I sat there feeling vacant; devoid of all emotion. My mind recalled all the times a child had entered my father’s study for a private tutoring session. I played unknowingly outside while innocence was being stolen from them inside. These “free” lessons apparently came with a grave cost. My father was not the honorable man I had known him to be. Instead, he was the boogeyman who lurked in the shadows of children’s dreams. No longer a myth but a tangible man of flesh and blood. My mind worked sluggishly, as if it waded through a swamp with muddy truth up to its knees. “What do I do now?” I asked myself over and over again.
Do I contact the boys I could and try to offer some kind of consolation? Do I call the authorities and drag my family name through the muck? What good could come from either of those? I dug out the other false books, five in all, and piled them high with the camera placed on top. I stood on numb legs, everything was numb, picked up the pile and headed for the den. The weight of each life ruined pulled on my already tired muscles. The next hour passed by like a memory being recalled; fragmented and shrouded in a gray haze. Lighting the fire, waiting, feeding the books to it one by one, then the camera, and settling into the russet couch and watching the famished flames consume it all.
I closed my eyes and tried to recall memories of my father now: our trip to Walden Pond, Poe’s grave, and the tour of Smith College. Of how he could recite Green Eggs and Ham from memory and always did so when I was upset. Of how he always burned my toast until I learned to make it myself. With each memory I saw his enchanting emerald eyes and gentle smile. A boy’s face flashed before my eyes casting a shadow over each memory. My father’s demeanor transformed from one of love to something vile. For a moment I blamed the boys for ruining my memories. Fury began to course through my veins bringing my blood to a simmer. I wished I had never come across their sullen faces and pleading eyes. I envied my mother; ignorant in the grave. The discovery of those faces caused an eruption equal to that of Mt. Vesuvius; leaving my world in ash covered ruins.
The child inside me stirred and I was reminded they were only innocent victims. I took a breath and traced abstract shapes mindlessly across my swollen belly. I had made my decision. I would give all the books to the university, including his unfinished manuscripts. I would sell this house and everything in it. I would tell my husband to take that job in Oxford and we would put an entire ocean between us and the past. I would lock away all memories of the man who raised me, never utter a word of him to my children, and give this child a name of their own.
Tic Tac Toe
We were running, eight of us in total, lost in an imaginary world fueled by the latest episode of Power Rangers. To anyone who watched we were just a pack of unruly kids sending clumsy kicks into the summer air. We, on the other hand, were saving the planet from the nefarious Dr. Ooze with our rudimentary martial arts skills.
With the battle won, the game ends and we slowly descend back into reality. Sweat seeps from our foreheads and our shirts double as rags. The air hangs thick. Breathing comes hard but it is accompanied by a sense of achievement. This is not our normal playground but I fail to remember why we chose to venture here for the day. It is small, probably meant for preschoolers, but it serves our purpose. My oldest brother rests at the top of a slide, his legs already more than halfway to the bottom. The equipment burns so my remaining brothers lie in the threadbare grass and stare up at a cloudless sky. My sister crawls into the tunnel out of the sun’s reach. She is the only one of us who can lay in there without arms or legs hanging out of either end. My cousin and I, separated only by six months, decide to play a game of tic tac toe. We spin the tiles into place, play a short game of rock, paper, scissors for the right to be X, and begin playing.
Games fly by, we are not keeping track of total wins. Our laughter and the occasional car driving by are the only sounds to be heard. Roger, the son of my dad’s new wife, leaves his resting place and joins us. “I want to play,” he demands.
“You can’t, it’s a two player game. You can play winner.” I explain quickly and turn my attention back to the game.
At the time it seemed like the fair thing to do. I mean isn’t that how things work? Everyone has to wait their turn; even at the arcade we set a quarter on the game to reserve next round for ourselves. Then it happened, I didn’t even have time to take my next turn. I caught a glimpse of movement in the corner of my eye and then a pain that snapped my head to the side. Warmth spread along my jaw and up to my lip. Anger rose, hands balled tightly into fists, tears were subdued, and my tongue began swimming in a pool of warmth. Pushing past my cousin, I run down the steps, and release the foul red liquid from my mouth. The initial pain is gone and a dull pulsing has taken its place. With no first aid kit my only choice is to return home. I leave to the sounds of boys arguing and one sister crying. Careful not to stain my clothes, I leave a trail of russet droplets on the white sidewalk behind me.
It happens within a realm between realms; a purgatory of sorts. When the parts that make up your natural state are still coming back together and are out of sync. Lead sinkers are attached to your wrists, ankles, and it feels as if Mjolnir sits on your chest making movement impossible in the physical sense. Eyes open, the room around you is familiar but doused in a haze of gray; disorienting you. Shadows linger and loom just at the edge of your vision. Static fills your ears, drowning out the low murmurs you think you hear in the background. Two thoughts triumph in your mind: you are not alone; you are not welcome.
The phantom part of you thrashes about trapped within the flesh; mode set to panic. Sometimes, he breaks free of his paralyzed prison and on colt legs heads for the door; there is always a door. As he reaches for the knob vulnerability washes over him. He doesn’t belong here, in the unknown, without his shell for protection and so he returns sinking deep beneath skin and bone.
Most times, he just continues to whip and roll within his tomb. Fists pounding the slick walls hoping to wake his inert companion. Urgency beats within his heart. Silent lips utter bootless prayers to an invisible deity until, at last, that sweet silken sheet of darkness over takes them both and they awaken in their rightful realm.