Tag Archives: short story

kaleidoscope

 

Halfway to Long Island, Ben had a panic attack and had to pull over to the side of the road. Still clutching the damp and wrinkled directions in his hand, he decided that he was a jerk, an idiot, for thinking that they would even want to see him.

Each exit he passed was the one he was going to get off, the one that would take him as far away as possible. The sun was prismatic; it shattered the sky with kaleidoscopic color. He couldn’t see through the glare on the windshield. His head was pounding.

Taking a deep breath, he wiped his brow, then pulled back onto the parkway. It was nearing two o’clock. He knew Ari wouldn’t be home from school yet, which would give him a little time alone with Robin. He couldn’t face them both at the same time. Ben parked at least ten houses away from where Robin lived.

She had moved, Matt said, because the rent at their old place got too high. She was living in a basement apartment outside of the city with Ari. Ben knew Robin had always hated suburbia and he felt a pang of sadness as he passed houses that all looked the same, searching for the right number.

78. It was a decent, rundown house. Matt had told him to go through the side gate, which lead to the backyard. To the right was a stairwell lined with painted terra cotta pots and chimes that, moved by the sudden wind, rang in cacophony. He descended the stairs, his hand clutching the bag which held Ari’s gift. After several deep breaths, he knocked tentatively on Robin’s door.

“What does he want?” was the second thought that ran through Robin’s head. The first thought was not a thought; it was a visualization of action. She wanted to back away from the door. She wanted to run away and hide. She stayed in the hallway for a few seconds, her heart racing.

Ari looked like just like him: same nose, same eyebrows, same jut of the chin. Ben’s eyes were Ari’s eyes, pale green or blue, depending on his mood and the way his mind was turning. Ben bit his lip nervously. He was wearing an impossibly thin coat despite the March snow that still lingered in the bottom of the stairwell. She opened the door a crack and met his eyes.

“I know … it’s been a while,” he said. His hands were shaking slightly, and he attempted to put them in his pockets. The shopping bag secured around his wrist caused him to struggle to find his right pocket, until he gave up and let his arm fall by his side, still clutching the bag.

“What are you doing here?” Robin asked.

Ben opened his mouth to speak and closed it again. He looked at her plaintively, unable to find the words. She closed her eyes slightly, and opened the door further for him to enter.

They moved around each other in the small space. Robin thought, how strange it was to have loved someone so fully, to have breathed that person in until he had become part of her; and then, to have him before her as a person she could not touch, a person she could no longer lay claim to.

“Would you like some coffee?” She asked.

“I would love some.”

Moments passed in uncomfortable silence. Ben looked around the kitchen, trying to find threads of their old life. His eye caught the painting above the table, “That’s new?”

Robin turned and followed his gaze to a rather small abstract painting; it was a scene of the beach, the colors muted and distant. Sometimes Robin thought she could hear the cry of seagulls, their insatiable hunger, vibrate on the surface of the canvas.

She tensed. “Oh, that. I finished that about a year ago.”

“It’s … it’s really beautiful,” Ben said. He cleared his throat. “You’ve gotten a lot better. I mean, you were always great. But it’s different …”

“Why don’t you sit down?” Robin asked.

Ben wondered which place was Ari’s. There were three chairs at the table; the thought that the third chair might belong to someone else pained him. He remained standing.

“I read your book.”

“Oh.” Ben said. “I’m almost done with my second one … that’s why I’m here. I mean, that’s why I’m here in New York.”

“I see,” Robin said, looking down at her hands. “How’s that coming?”

“Good, I guess. You know. It can be… difficult, at times.” Ben cleared his throat again. “You know how it is.”

“I don’t know if I do, Ben.” Robin said, her voice edging discomfort. The coffee pot behind her continued its persistent sound, a noise that seemed to gather volume as they avoided each others eyes.

Ben wrapped his hands around his cup. Robin imagined that if he lifted a finger, or his palm, off the cup, he would crumble. She wondered if she would try to put him back together, or if she would purse her lips and blow, as if that movement of air would push him away, scatter the past like dust.

“I can’t force a conversation with you …” Robin began.

Ben looked at the painting again. “You know I’ve been in and out of the hospital, right?”

“I’ve talked to Matt.”

“It’s the meds … They’re supposed to be making me better, more stable. But I think they’re just making me worse.” He paused then leaped ahead as if crossing a stretch as wide and deep as a fault line in the earth.

“Do you know how much I’ve missed you?”

“How could I know that, Ben? After the first time you just checked out. You left. Nothing …” Robin struggled to control herself. “Didn’t you think about Ari? Even once?”

“Of course I did.” Ben faced her. “I wanted … How could I …”

They stared at each other for a long while, frankly, viewing each other in parts that did not quite make up a whole.

Robin’s face told him about the days she had waited to hear from him, about Ari at six, seven, years he missed, years he left her to take on the responsibility by herself. Ben’s face told her about the nights he had stayed away from her, about the spiraling downs, the manic highs, the loneliness and the guilt, the bathroom mirror at 3am, all the pills.

“I brought something for him,” Ben said, motioning to the bag that he finally released and placed on the table.

After deciding to visit Robin and Ari, Ben had rationalized that he couldn’t show up empty handed. Matt told him about a store in Manhattan that was packed with curiosities and antiques, all unusual or different in some way. Ben had walked throughout the store lightly; afraid he would bump into something and knock it over.

“Can I help you, Sir?” A well-dressed saleswoman had asked, eyeing Ben as if she wasn’t quite sure he could afford most of the items in the store.

“Yes, I’m looking for a gift… for a boy, about seven years old.”

“What are some of the little boy’s interests? Science? Art? Music, perhaps?”

Ben didn’t know what Ari’s interests were, but he couldn’t say that; he barely wanted to recognize it himself. “I just want to get him something unique and beautiful … something he can hold, something to stir his imagination.”

The saleswoman had nodded and directed Ben towards the back of the shop. It was there that he noticed a kaleidoscope, tucked into a corner. Ben picked it up and looked through it. The world changed unexpectedly. It was breathtaking and filled him with a deep joy. He wanted to share that vision, that momentary enchantment.

Robin looked at the clock. Ari would be home from school soon.

“How is he?” Ben asked, averting his eyes.

“He’s okay. He’s really smart, really creative. I don’t think he has that many friends in school. But he’s relatively happy.” Robin paused. “You hurt him, Ben. He and I have a great relationship, but … I’m not his father.”

“Look at me.” Ben said, extending his hands upward. “I’m a fucking mess, Robin. It’s better that I’ve stayed away all these years.”

“Better for who?”

“For you, for Ari. I can’t be what you need.”

“What do you know about what we need? You’ve been, what, in and out of hospitals, you’ve been working on your second book. You, you, you. Do you hear yourself?” Robin felt her voice growing louder. “It’s all about you. It always was.”

Ben looked at her with relief; he would no longer have to wait for her anger, knowing it would come but not knowing when. “You’ve always been the more responsible one.”

“Because I had to be,” Robin spat at him, “Don’t you think I’ve wanted to be free of consequences, to do whatever the fuck I want, to really concentrate on my art, and not just … when I can?”

“Is that what you think I do? You have Ari, you have a life… I have nothing. Words, paper, a book. I spend half my time writing and the other half of it wanting to die. You want that? You can have it. You can have my disorder and my pills and my instability and my fucking overwhelming emptiness.”

Robin gazed into the living room, instinctively searching out the painting she had done when Ari was about five years old, around the time Ben had left. When it was finished, she had laid it against the wall to finish drying. Robin had sensed that it was a turning point in her work.

That night, when Ari had walked into the kitchen for dinner, Robin remembered turning to him, noticing his look of joy, then his hand, streaked with yellow ochre and alizarin crimson. Her heart had seemed to stop.

“You didn’t touch Mommy’s painting, did you?”

“I’m an artist, too!” Ari laughed.

Robin had raced into the living room to check the painting. The right side of the painting was blurred along the edge. Ari had taken his hand and allowed it to travel downwards in a long stroke, as if petting a sleepy cat.

Robin broke down. She literally fell to the floor in front of the painting; the strength that she had seemed to summon since Ben left was gone. She wept openly, bitterly. Ari watched, his eyes wide and scared. Robin caught his expression through her own pain, and knew that she would have to pull it together, allow the gaping wound to scar, accept that it might never heal. She needed to be stronger. For herself, for Ari.

At 3:25, the school bus arrived. Robin had told Ben it would be better for him to wait inside the apartment.

She stood on the sidewalk and waited for Ari to descend from the bus. The sun was cold brightness. Light refracted from windows and the chrome of car bumpers, throwing a dizzying spell.

Ari’s blonde head burned brightly under it; his hair was getting a little too long, and he pushed it from his eyes in order to see Robin. He ran across the street, smiling, dragging his book bag on the ground, his coat thrown open against the rough wind.

“Ari. Hold on a sec.” Robin looked at him, his face was so trusting, as open as the sky.

“What’s up?” Ari asked, furrowing his eyebrows and smiling at the break in their routine.

“Someone came over … someone we haven’t seen for a long time. Your father …”

A cloud passed across Ari’s face. Robin didn’t have time to explain any further; he took off running and didn’t slow down until he reached the gate. Robin was breathing hard when she caught up to him.

“Ari,” she said.

He avoided her eyes.

“Are you sure … I mean, it’s sudden. Are you okay with this?” Robin paused. “I can tell him to leave.”

“No,” he whispered. He didn’t move. He didn’t look at her; he stood rooted outside the gate.

“Do you want me to go in first?” Robin placed her arm protectively around his shoulders, and he nodded.

Ben was sitting in the living room, on the couch that doubled as Robin’s bed, his head in his hands. He looked up when they walked in, his face pale, so pale that Robin instantly asked, “Ben? Are you okay?”

Ari stood behind Robin, the way he used to do when he was much younger, when he was afraid of grown-ups, of strangers.

“I’m … I feel a little sick. I’ll be fine.” Ben tried to smile, but the smile came out more like a grimace.

“Ari, sit down,” Robin said, “let me get your snack.”

Ari sat at the kitchen table. His large eyes, dark and unsmiling, were focused on Ben.

“I brought something for you, Ari.” Ben said the boy’s name as if tasting a new word. “It’s right there, in that bag. You can take it out.”

Ari reached into the bag and took out a wrapped box. He opened the wrapping slowly, carefully, until he reached the plain cardboard that held his gift inside. Lifting each corner flap, he tipped the box so its contents fell into his hand. He turned the object over.

“What is it?” he asked.

“A kaleidoscope. It’s an old-fashioned one,” Ben said.

Robin set a cup of milk in front of Ari, along with some cookies on a paper napkin. “Wow, Ben, that’s really beautiful.”

The kaleidoscope was heavy. The body was constructed of solid wood, the lens was real glass. The turning chamber was an oil filled cell infused with color, containing pieces of glass, beads, wire, polymer clay and other hand made trinkets.

Ari gazed into the object, a smile playing at the corners of his mouth.

“Well,” Robin asked, “What do you see?”

“Colors,” he said. “I see a star, full of colors and shapes. When I turn this part, the picture changes. This is really cool.”

Ari looked at Robin; he seemed slightly dazed, as if his equilibrium had been altered by the spell of the object. He held the kaleidoscope possessively in his hand and glanced at Ben.

“Thank you,” Ari said softly.

“I … I just wanted to see you for a little bit. But I have to go now.” Ben stood up.

Ari looked up at his father in disbelief.

“It will probably take me about an hour to get the car back to the city, and my flight’s at six o’clock,” Ben explained thinly.

“You’re leaving?”

Robin watched Ari’s face change. She turned towards Ben as the kaleidoscope hit him in the jaw with a smack, a thud, and then crashed to the floor. Ben instinctively put his hand to his face; his eyes filled with tears.

Ari ran out of the kitchen.

“Go.” Robin said sadly. She put her hand on his cheek and gently brushed his bruised jaw with her thumb. Ben closed his eyes. He remained still, as if her touch extended beyond his face to the entire surface of his skin, then deeper, to his heart, his soul.

As she walked down the short hallway to Ari’s room, she heard the faint click of the door closing behind him.

Robin called Ari’s name, then stood outside his door and waited. Moments passed. Each second Robin felt the distance between them growing and shaping into something real.

She thought about the kaleidoscope in her hand and wanted to cradle it in her arms, to restore it to its earlier safety, inside the box, wrapped, an unexpected gift. She called his name again.

Ari opened the door slightly, and then returned to his bed. He curled up, facing the wall. Robin entered lightly and sat on the edge. She smoothed the hair from his damp forehead and placed the kaleidoscope beside him.

“Did I break it?”

“No,” Robin said, “It’s okay.”

Ari touched the kaleidoscope gingerly and held it to his chest.

“I didn’t mean to throw it.”

“I know.” Robin laid down on the bed next to him. Side by side, they searched the cracks in the ceiling.

“Will he ever come back?”

Robin wrapped her arms around Ari and closed her eyes. She imagined Ben leaving, walking into the raw sun, the wind beating down on his shoulders, leaving, over and again, caught the cycle of eternal return.

 

*

 

 

Kaleidoscope is a story I wrote many years ago, and was first published on this site in February, 2012.


reading series 12.1

Persephone by Mia Araujo

 

The gorgeous image above is a painting of Persephone by Mia Araujo. I love finding contemporary artists who are also interested in mythology, and who find inspiration in some of the same myths and tales that have also inspired me. For more of Mia’s beautiful work, visit her website at art-by-mia.com

For this reading series, I wanted to share another early story of mine. I decided to share an unpublished story I wrote quite some time ago called “Between the Earth and the River Lethe.” This is a story that initially came directly from a personal experience, and was one of my earliest forays into writing fiction. It was also my first exploration into the Persephone myth, which has obsessed me for many years. Since it’s initial draft, I had revised and expanded the story, but there never seemed to be a place for it. Still, I like this story a lot, and I thought it would be a nice addition to this series.

Interestingly, the Persephone myth has found its way into some of my other work, beginning with a poem I had written which I called “Persephone’s Affliction.” From there, I began writing other poems that explored some of the themes in the myth. Later, I decided to compile the poems into a collection. The first form of the collection was a full length poetry book which included not only the relationship between Persephone and Hades, but also sought to express Demeter’s part in the myth and the mother-daughter connection therein. However, I felt that the collection was not working as a whole. After several other attempts, I decided to narrow down the collection quite severely, resulting in a chapbook length work which focused solely on the relationship between Persephone and Hades. I also decided to illustrate the chapbook, which became a whole other endeavor. Thus, my illustrated chapbook, “Persephone’s Affliction,” was born, nearly 20 years after my first encounter with the myth.

“Between the Earth and the River Lethe” had its first seeds of creation the day one of my classmates from my Greek Mythology class stopped me on the stairs, pulled a pomegranate from his pocket and offered it to me in exchange for a kiss. Little did I know then that the young man’s bold gesture would be stored in my poetic memory, and that the myth of Persephone would haunt me for so many years afterwards. From my perspective now, I can trace the paths that have lead me to Persephone in my work, and I think it is amazing how mysteriously the universe works.

You can read “Between the Earth and the River Lethe” here.

 

*

 

 


between the earth and the river lethe

Down by the River Lethe

 

There was nothing unusual about that day, except, in retrospect; I was more aware of his body moving closer to mine in the ascendant staircase. By the fifth floor, his stride quickened and as I passed the sixth, he edged around me as if he were in a great hurry. He swept in front of me at the seventh floor and his coat turned in a circular motion akin to the dramatic flourish of a cape. He reached into his pocket and extracted a medium-sized dark red fruit. He held it out to me and said, in a gravely articulated manner,

“A pomegranate, in exchange for a kiss.”

“What?” I stammered.

For several weeks, the heavy sound of his boots had followed me up the stairs. He always paced himself so that at least one half-turn of the staircase was between us. When I reached the seventh floor, I never held the door for him; he was always too far behind me.

The sound of his footsteps would reverberate in the hall before he entered the classroom, his shoulders bent in an awkward stoop as he walked through the doorway. He never corrected his posture after passing through the aperture; he continued a few steps, hunched as if awaiting a blow, and sat in the first available seat nearest the door.

A quick glance revealed nothing of his features. I could see that the desk was ill-fitting to his frame. His long black coat tailed on the floor, the edge dirty and stained. His clothing was a blur of blackness. He kept his face downcast, obscured by lank dark brown hair. When the class began, I averted my attention, and I didn’t give him another thought until the next week, when his presence assaulted me in the flight of stairs.

“A pomegranate, in exchange for a kiss.” He repeated his previous request, though his voice seemed a little more strained.

If the ground had opened up before me, revealing a winged chariot, I would not have been as surprised.

I looked directly into his face and searched for a hint of a smile, to let me know he was joking, but found nothing. His skin was without colour and the iris of his eye was so brown it was hard to locate the circumference of his pupil; as a result, his eyes appeared so dark I questioned the depth of his soul.

He stood patiently, his palm outstretched, unwavering.

The usual before-class noise dimmed and within moments, there was a certain stillness that could only mean that classes had begun. I hadn’t answered him and he still stood before me. Neither one of us moved or seemed to breathe.

“We’re late for class,” I finally said, “I hate walking in late.”

“Will you accept my offer?” He asked quietly, as his eyes fell to the floor. He picked at the hem of his pocket with his right hand, the left still outstretched but wilting.

“I don’t know,” I said honestly. “I’m no Persephone.”

He smiled, and his face shone with a rare light.

“Would you like to go for a walk or something? I hate walking in late to class too.”

I nodded in agreement and we began the descent down the stairs. He put the pomegranate back into his pocket, but it weighed between us, an unanswered question.

We walked out of the building and were thrust into the city street. The sidewalk was crowded with people and I started to get anxious. My therapist had suggested that I take a class, once a week, as I was making progress with my social phobias. I started to walk left and he started to walk right, but then he stopped and reached for my hand and led me in his direction.

For all his awkwardness, he appeared to negotiate himself on the sidewalk with ease. Whereas I could not walk a block without stuttering in my step and nearly slamming into the people hurrying towards me from the other direction, he moved effortlessly through the chaotic rhythm of the street.

“Have you lived in New York long?” I asked.

“All my life. I grew up over by Central Park. My parents still live there, but I don’t see them anymore,” he said, his voice edging discomfort.

“Oh.” I answered, not knowing how to respond. I thought that I could tell him about my own parents, since he mentioned his. However, I didn’t have parents, well, not exactly.

I found out that I was adopted in my early twenties, when my mother and father died in a freak car accident. But that wasn’t exactly the type of thing you would talk about to a stranger who cornered you in the hallway, was it? I wasn’t even sure why I agreed to take the walk with him. I wondered what my therapist would say. She would probably think that it was an important step for me. I hadn’t gone out on a date or had sex or even kissed someone in over two years.

After we were quiet for a while, he asked me where I was from.

“Not Manhattan.” I answered.

“I figured,” he said, “you kind of have an accent.”

Of course I had been told that before. I didn’t want to tell him where I was from or that I didn’t know who my birth parents were or that sometimes I still looked into the mirror, trying to piece together a picture of my birth mother, thinking perhaps she had the same shape lips, or the same nose, or the same pale fringe of eyelashes that didn’t seem quite capable of protecting the eye.

We entered the park at the north entrance and walked the path, past the undergrowth and grass, to the benches. I was immediately comforted by surrounding nature. The sky was darkening and there was a chill in the air. We sat down and he put his hands into his pockets. It was a little colder than I had first realized and I rubbed my hands together, careful to pull the sleeves of my sweater over my wrists.

“Are you cold?” He asked.

I shook my head in an ambivalent way, meaning yes, but no. He looked at me for a moment, as if turning a question over in his mind.

“We could get some coffee, if you want.”

“No, that’s okay. I can’t really stay that long.” I said. I knew I wasn’t contributing to the conversation, but I simply didn’t trust myself to say anything.

I had been practicing my conversation skills with my therapist, but the same rules didn’t seem to apply with him. I tried to remember his name, but couldn’t. I thought about asking him, but figured we had already spent some time together and asking now would be somewhat awkward.

We fell into an uncomfortable silence. I absently kicked at the twigs and dried leaves that had gathered around the legs of the bench while he sat with his legs straight out onto the path. He stirred, crossed his leg over the other, and then, moving again, he settled into a more upright position, but remained slightly hunched over.

“I didn’t mean to offend you,” he suddenly said, his voice so soft that I had to strain to hear him.

“What?” I asked.

“I didn’t mean to offend you by my offer,” he said again, a little more loudly.

I began to wonder if he had social anxiety as well, because he didn’t seem much better at conversing than I. In fact, I couldn’t recall him ever speaking out in class, or answering a question, or talking to someone nearby.

“I wouldn’t say that you offended me.”

“Because that really wasn’t my intent.”

“What wasn’t your intent?” I asked.

“To offend you,” he said.

I paused for a minute, and a slight smile crossed my lips. “Oh, I thought you meant … to kiss me.”

“No, I intended that.”

He laughed nervously, which made me laugh a little nervously as well. I stole a glance at his face and wondered what it would be like to kiss him, thinking how strange it was that between two bodies, the most insurmountable wall was something as simple as touch.

He took his hands out of his pockets.

“Look,” he said, “at the moon. You can see it just behind those trees.”

He pointed in the direction of the moon, and I could see it rising low on the horizon. The branches of the trees, reaching desperately for the sky, were outlined crisply against the fading light. Looking at the trees in the park, I felt suddenly sad.

“Where I’m from,” I said, “Nature is something you live in, not something you have to find, tucked away like an ill-forgotten secret, battling for space against buildings, bricks, and concrete.”

“Everything is confined in one way or another, isn’t it?”

We had been sitting for almost an hour, our silent conversation growing more comfortable, when he suddenly said, “I want to show you something,”

He hesitated, then brushed the hair out of his eyes. Holding his arms out in front of him, he pushed up the left sleeve of his coat with his right hand, and then the right sleeve with his left.

He held out his arms to me, and I instantly recognized the disfiguration of his skin. Each of his arms were scarred badly with several deep lines, starting at various points at the wrist and continuing upwards.

“I’ve been dead for a long time,” he said, “Each time, I put a coin in my mouth, and prayed that Charon would accept his fare … but I can’t seem to leave this world.”

He pulled down his sleeves and put his hands back into his pockets. He exhaled and shifted his position on the bench.

“All my life, I’ve searched for the river Lethe,” I said.

He nodded and whispered absently, “The river of forgetfulness. The stream of death, the tributary of rebirth. I would surely wait one thousand years to be called to the river Lethe and cleansed of my memory.”

“There’s something I should…” I said, fingering the sleeve of my sweater.

“You don’t have to show me.”

He took his hands from his pockets and reached for my hand. Then he placed his other hand on top of our joined hands, so that my left hand was enclosed in both of his.

“How did you know?” I asked.

“I recognized you from the moment I saw you.”

We sat on the bench, turned towards each other, as the evening fell later into night, and the moon rose high and bright in the sky.

“Can I hold the pomegranate?” I asked.

He nodded solemnly and untangled his hands from mine to reach into his pocket and extract the fruit. He held it out to me reverently, as he had earlier, when he made his offering.

I took the pomegranate and held it with both hands. It was slightly warm from being in his pocket. I held it as if I were holding a very small globe. If I accepted his offer, could I survive the months of darkness, the black rivers and bare earth reflected in his eyes? Would my mother, then, try to find me?

I brought the pomegranate to my mouth and brushed my lips against the hard rind, tasting the scent of the ancient fruit. I imagined the labyrinth of seeds and the dark red pulp hidden inside, waiting to be revealed. Then, cradling the world between my fragile hands, I turned to answer him.

 

*


selah

mother and child by Kathe KollwitzMother and Child by Käthe Kollwitz

 

Selah.

I whisper her name, a prayer, a mantra. Selah doesn’t stir. She is sleeping now, her beautiful eyes closed, framed by long black lashes. When she opens them, her eyes will be a kaleidoscope of colour, blue and green and gold. There was a time I was afraid I would never see her open her eyes again. I am still afraid. All I can do is continue to be there for her, to shine a light in her darkness, to hope that she will find her way, to hope that, this time, she will be okay.

Selah.

Even though she is in the room across the hall, sleeping, I can’t sleep. She has been home for only a day. For over half a year, she has been in and out of mental hospitals. Now the tally is five times in seven months. I don’t know why she wants to die. I don’t know why nothing helps. She sees a therapist twice a week, attends a support group once a week, and I am with her every day, offering her advice and comfort and companionship. She takes “medication.” I run through the list of prescription drugs they’ve given her: abilify, zoloft, wellbutrin, risperdal, seroquel, throazine, depacote, lutuda. Then the diagnoses: depression, psychosis, depression with psychotic episodes, psychosis with depressive episodes, bi-polar depression with acute psychosis. My mind spins. I can only imagine what her mind is doing. I don’t know what all of this is doing to her. I don’t know what happened to my little girl.

Selah.

The last time, she tied her shoelaces together and hung herself from the ceiling fan in her room. I was with her only twenty minutes prior, and we talked about her goals for the day, positive affirmations, things she was grateful for. She showed me her journal; she said that she was grateful for mom, the cats, and art. She smiled at me. She said she loved me. Twenty minutes later, I heard a storm of glass crash to the floor. I rushed from my room to hers, across the hallway; she was two feet away. The light from the ceiling fan fell when she kicked the chair away. She was hanging, straining, her eyes wide with fear. First I tried to undo the knot, then I ran to my room to get a pair of scissors that I kept hidden in my drawer. There were seconds I had to leave her there, hanging, in a precarious balance between life and death. I ran back and cut the thin, taut rope with the child sized scissor, pushing her to fall onto her bed. She gasped for breath. She looked terrified, lost, shocked. She said, “I’m sorry.” I burst into tears.

Selah.

At first I blamed myself. I wondered what I did wrong. There was always too little money; I couldn’t afford her “the soil of easy growth.” Her father left when she was only a baby. I raised her alone, stayed home in the day as a full-time mother and worked nights and weekends. My mother watched her when I was gone. She was always cared for, always loved. There was never too little love; I gave her my time, my affection, my attention, all the things that money could never buy. I love being a mother. I never imagined that something like this would happen, could happen. I read countless parenting books. I read to her. I cooked healthy food. I baked cookies. I spent the little money I had on books and art supplies, musical instruments, science kits, educational toys. I encouraged her. I supported her. I love her so much. I don’t know what went wrong. What did I do wrong?

Selah.

I know I’m not alone. I see it in the faces of other parents when I have visited her in the hospital. We are searching the places we missed, the signs we didn’t know, the twisted path that has lead us here. I know she’s not alone. During all this time, I’ve seen so many teenagers go through this cycle, this revolving door. They are so young, they are so lost, their arms and wrists are scarred, they don’t know how they got to this place either. There were visits she rejected me, when she didn’t want to see me, when there was more anger than fear in her eyes. There were visits we played cards or colored mandalas, or simply talked, even laughed. There were visits when she just laid her head on my shoulder and cried. Each time I left without her, I felt a piece of me missing; my heart needed to stay with her.

Selah.

After the first time, I couldn’t look at children or babies. I’d see them crying in the store, begging for their parents attention, coddled with technological gadgets to pacify them. I’d remember Selah when she was a child; she was so happy. I looked forward to her teenage years; I thought they would be a breeze. Then everything fell apart. The relationship with her boyfriend began to appear unhealthy. Later, I would learn about the emotional abuse and the drugs, the cheating and the gaslighting, her increased anxiety, paranoia, and depression. Her self-esteem shattered, she was too fragile to pick up the pieces. She saw suicide as the only way out of the relationship, the only way to end the pain. Since then, she has ricocheted like a pinball in a sick machine, a mental health care system focused on drug therapy. At first, I wouldn’t let them medicate her. After her second attempt, I had no choice. I don’t really trust the doctors, I don’t really trust the drugs. I don’t know if they are helping or hurting. All I know is that she is in pain, and no matter what I try, I can’t seem to help her find her way out of this nightmare.

Selah.

I would do anything to help her. I have tried everything I can think of. If I could, I would take her pain and hide it deep within myself so that she would never feel it again. How many times can my heart be broken, over and over again. How many tears can I cry, useless tears, only wanting my daughter to be okay. I’ve learned just how exacting everything can fall apart at a moment’s notice, another suicide attempt, another hospitalization. I am a mirror of her suffering, her shadow as she walks a tightrope down this dark, dangerous path. “I’ll always be here to catch you,” I say. She smiles. Her face is pure beauty. But she doesn’t know that, she doesn’t know how beautiful and talented and wonderful she really is. What do you do when a person you love wants to fall? I am not a religious person, but I’ve touched my own spirituality. I pray. I meditate. I ask the universe, I plead: please let my daughter live, please let her live with health and happiness and peace, please let her feel love within herself, towards herself and towards the world. Please, let my daughter live.

Selah.

I whisper her name, a prayer, a mantra. Selah doesn’t stir. She is sleeping now, her beautiful eyes closed, framed by long black lashes. When she opens them, her eyes will be a kaleidoscope of colour, blue and green and gold. There was a time I was afraid I would never see her open her eyes again. I am still afraid. All I can do is continue to be there for her, to shine a light in her darkness, to hope that she will find her way, to hope that, this time, she will be okay.

Selah.

*


the handless maiden

The Handless Maiden by Ericka Lugo

Once upon a time, a miller lived with his wife and daughter at the edge of the forest on the outskirts of a beautiful kingdom, miles away from the village. Generations earlier, a special path had been cleared for the Queen’s horses through the wood, and for many years it was the exclusive mill of the entire kingdom. However, a new mill had been erected in the village with the latest technology, employing not one but several millers, and within only a few years, the new mill had grown so large it overshadowed the little mill by the forest. The miller even lost his account with the Queen.

Hard times fell upon the miller. He had once been prosperous, even wealthy, but now he was very poor. He had once pampered his wife and daughter, and they had an esteemed position in the village. He had hoped that his daughter would marry one of the king’s court by the time she was of marrying age. Now, even the lowliest villager would not take her. His wife and daughter foraged for food in the forest and picked apples from the trees behind the mill to sell at market. The miller’s wife begged him to take a position at the new mill and put his skills to use. But his pride was too great, and he refused.

When the miller’s wife grew hot and bright with fever, there was no money to bring her to the doctor. The sickness spread throughout her body and within a week, she was dead. The miller’s daughter had tried in vain to nurse her mother back to health. At her bedside, she had solemnly promised her mother that she would take care of her father. Through her grief, she took over all of her mother’s duties, and she still foraged, cleaned, bought and made household goods, and sold apples at the market. She cared for her father the best she could, but he was inconsolable.

The miller took to drinking sour mash, and spent his days in a drunken stupor. He cried and prayed for his fortune to change. One day when his daughter was at the market, a strange visitor knocked on the door.

“Whaddya want?” The miller slurred.

“I want to help you,” the stranger answered.

“You want to help me? You can’t help me. Can’ya bring my wife back? Can you bring my mill back? Can you restore what has been taken from me?”

“Yes.”

The miller roared with bitter laughter. “How?”

“Give me what is behind the mill.”

“And then what?” The miller asked, thinking of the rows of apple trees behind the mill, their only source of income.

“Then you will have a new wife, a new life, and all the riches you desire.”

“Sounds like you want me to make a deal with the devil.”

“Only if that is what you want.”

The miller and the stranger looked each other in the eye for a good few minutes, as if trying to read the others thoughts.

“Give me what is behind the mill, and you will have your heart’s desire.”

The miller thought about his daughter, and the back-breaking work of picking and selling the apples. He imagined her good, sweet face, so much like her mother’s.

“Okay,” he said.

“It’s a deal,” the stranger said, extending his hand.

The miller took his hand, and for a second, he felt a hot jolt course through his arm. Their handshake was hard and firm, binding.

The stranger bowed, “thank you, Sir. I will go collect her now.”

“Her?” The miller asked quickly, but too late. The stranger turned on his heel and was already out the door.

The miller ran after him. His daughter was under one of the trees with the bushel next to her. His heart dropped. He watched as the devil approached her.

“No,” he shouted, running towards them.

The miller’s daughter turned around in alarm. She saw the stranger approaching her. She saw the pain and anguish on her father’s face as he rushed toward her.

“What’s going on?” she asked.

“My dear, your father has just given you to me,” the stranger said, smiling.

“No I didn’t!” The miller shouted.

“We just sealed the deal with a handshake,” the stranger reminded him, and the miller’s hand flashed as if on fire.

“No …” the miller said weakly, clutching his burning hand to his chest.

The stranger reached for the miller’s daughter, but when he tried to take her hand, he realized that he could not touch her. She was too pure; she was protected. He growled with anger, then turned and walked away.

“Cut off her hands!” he instructed the miller as he rushed past him. “I will be back.”

The miller sunk to the ground.

“Father, what is going on?” his daughter asked him.

“He asked for what was behind the mill … the apple trees … in exchange for … in exchange for …” The miller couldn’t continue. He broke down crying.

“What?”

“I won’t let him take you. I won’t.”

“Who is he, Father?”

“The devil.”

The miller’s daughter shuddered. She knew that her father was in a bad sort these days, but now he thought he was making deals with the devil? She was very worried about him. She brought him into the house and made a pot of tea. She consoled him in the ways that she had watched her mother console him, with food and drink and nonsense words, then she put him to bed like a child. She found his stash of sour mash and threw it away. Her father’s drinking was out of control.

She replayed what had happened over and over again in her head. None of it made sense. She decided to stay home and watch over her father instead of going back to the market. She had returned early because she sold all of the apples she had brought and wanted to get more. There was much to do at home anyway, and she began her household chores. She checked on her father regularly; he was sleeping like a baby.

Hours later, another visitor knocked at the door. The miller’s daughter started, afraid that it was the same stranger from earlier that day, but it was not. It was a local man from the village, come to talk with her father about business. He explained that the mill in town had an overage and he wondered if her father would be interested in contracting some of the work.

“Yes,” the miller’s daughter answered for him. “He will be ready to begin tomorrow.”

The little mill on the edge of the forest prospered, and the miller and his daughter fell into a comfortable routine, the visit from the stranger long forgotten. The miller’s daughter had grown to enjoy selling apples at the market, so she continued, even though it was no longer necessary. Day after day, the miller’s daughter grew more beautiful, rosy and healthy. Sometimes the miller watched her and was reminded so strongly of his wife, he felt his heart swell. Sometimes, as he hugged her good-night, his body responded before his mind, and his erection was swift and hard, pressing.

Months passed, and the miller became obsessed with the idea that his daughter was his wife’s replacement in nearly every way, except one. She looked so much like her, she could have been her twin. She loved him, she cared for him, she cooked and cleaned for him. He loved his daughter, but he desired a wife.

The miller’s daughter began to feel a little uncomfortable under her father’s hungry gaze, though she did not know the reason behind it. She was a young woman, no longer a little girl, but she was still innocent. There was a man she had met at the market who said he loved her. Once, he kissed her on the mouth, and she felt her soul sing. He wanted to ask her father for her hand in marriage, but the miller’s daughter wanted to wait. She wanted to make sure her father would be okay without her.

“Father, when do you think I should get married?” she asked one sunny morning after her father had awoken in a particularly good mood.

“Do you think you are ready?” the miller asked, his brow starting to furrow.

“Yes,” his daughter answered.

“Are you telling me that you met someone?”

The miller’s daughter’s face flushed.

“Where?” he asked sharply, his mood quickly turning.

“At the market, father.”

The miller’s face grew dark. He left, returning to his bedroom. After a few moments, his daughter knocked softly on the door. He opened the door angrily, his face contorted with rage. He grabbed his daughter by the arm roughly and pulled her into the room. She stood, shaking with confusion, as he held her by the shoulders and kissed her hard on the lips. The miller’s daughter shook her head, trying to get away from the terrible kiss.

“Did he kiss you like that?” the miller said angrily.

“Stop, father. Please …” she said, caught in his tight embrace.

He pushed her onto the bed and his full weight fell on top of her. He removed his belt with one hand while holding her down with the other, then he used the belt to bind her hands above her head. She rolled from side to side, trying to get away, but he was too strong, he overpowered her. He pushed her skirt up with one hand while unbuttoning his pants with the other.

“No …” she cried, moving her body violently, bringing up her knees to kick him. He staggered from the blow, and she rolled off the bed, hitting the floor with a thud. With her hands still bound, she used them as leverage to stand, and then she ran, out of the room, out of the house, and into the woods, as far and as fast as her feet would carry her.

But she was off balance, and she tripped and fell on the path. Her father caught up with her, and found her lying helpless on the forest floor. He bent over her, and grabbed her arm. He held her steady, her hands still bound. With his other hand, he pulled the belt around her wrists higher, immobilizing her outstretched arms. In one swift motion, he drew a long sword from the sheath on his back, the sharp edge glittering briefly in the light before it fell upon her wrists, slicing through skin, blood, bone.

“Let the devil take you,” he said.

She was stunned by the blow, in shock from the loss of blood. She did not scream. She did not make a sound. A murder of birds in the surrounding trees flew up suddenly, releasing a cacophony of shrieks and caws, leaving a throbbing silence in their wake. Her hands gone, the belt loosened and fell to the ground with a dull thud. Her father released his grip on her arm, letting her fall among the dirt and dried leaves.

She cried and cried, her tears cleansing the wound. And when there were no tears left, she cried more; she was wounded, her soul blindsided, her heart broken. The devil hovered around her, but still he could not touch her; her tears had washed away even the sin inflicted upon her, and she was still pure. At one point she gathered enough strength to stand, but she could barely walk; she staggered piteously until she got caught in the thorny bramble that had overrun the path, and she tripped again, and fell unconscious.

Perhaps it was the scent of the blood, or the hand of fate interceding, but the prince’s dogs led the hunting party astray. They had been down the ragged, unused path for over an hour, and it seemed that the dogs had taken over the expedition. A sense of urgency had replaced the hunting party’s earlier joviality, and one of them wondered aloud if they should turn back.

“No,” the prince said.

“But, there’s no game in this part of the woods. We’ve been out here for hours … soon the light will be gone …”

“Keep going,” the prince said, his sense of desperation growing. His dogs had never acted like that before, and it was making him anxious.

Far ahead on the path, the dogs started barking.

“Finally!” someone shouted, and the hunting party ran to see what the dogs had found.

None of them were prepared to find a human body among the tangled bush. None of them were prepared for all the blood.

“Is she dead?”

The prince stepped forward, carefully clearing a path through the thorns and bramble as he advanced. He knelt next to her, trying to find a pulse before realizing that the young woman’s hands had been brutally chopped off. Blood had soaked through the front of her dress, but there seemed to be no other wounds. Her heartbeat was weak, but she was still alive.

“We need to go back. We need to get help,” someone said.

“I won’t leave her …” the prince said, tearing off pieces of his shirt to make a tourniquet for her wounds.

Another member of the party came up with a quick plan, and they dispersed. Two would search for the village doctor, another would alert the Queen to prepare for their return, and the last would herd the dogs while the prince carried the young woman back to the castle.

Each day, the young woman grew stronger. Each day, the prince loved her more. She was so sweet and beautiful; she was a child sent to him downriver in a bulrush basket, and he promised heaven and earth that he would love and care for her for the rest of his life, if only she would love him in return. He needn’t have worried; she had been cast from her home and into the dark forest, left for dead, then rescued by a prince. She loved him so much she thought her heart might burst.

Within a few months, the prince and the handless maiden were married. As a wedding gift, the prince commissioned a pair of silver hands to be created for her. Though her silver hands were not functional, they were amazingly beautiful, as delicate and light as a piece of lace. She imagined that they were like a piece of jewelry, an adornment, and she loved her husband’s heart for thinking of the gift. With time, she was able to manipulate the appendages like a simple machine, and she could pick up and move some items using her silver hands, albeit clumsily.

In marriage, the handless maiden and the prince loved each other fiercely. Each night, she fell asleep in his loving arms, safe and protected, thinking this must be what happily ever after feels like.

The Queen was overjoyed with the union, and the entire kingdom rejoiced when only a couple of months after the wedding, they announced a pregnancy. In the far away, fairy tale kingdom, true love ruled the minds and the hearts of the people. Outside the kingdom, however, war loomed. Though the prince wanted to stay for the baby’s birth, it soon became a necessity for the prince to oversee negotiations with a hostile neighboring kingdom. The Queen promised that she would care for the handless maiden, and write him immediately after the baby’s birth. The prince left, promising the entire kingdom that he would stay until a peaceful resolution had been reached, no matter how long it took.

After the baby’s birth, the Queen did as promised, and sent a message to her son, telling him that the baby was a beautiful girl, and that both mother and child were fine. A messenger was sent directly, but it was a long trip to the neighboring kingdom, and the messenger stopped mid-way at the crossroads, seeing a shady tree that would be perfect for a short rest. Unbeknownst to the messenger, the devil was waiting there, and while he slept, the devil changed the message to say that the baby was hideously deformed.

Upon receiving the message, the prince was surprised; however, he sent another message back immediately, saying that he loved his wife and child, no matter what. Again, the messenger took a brief respite under that same shady tree, and again, the devil was waiting to switch the message. After the note had been delivered to the Queen, she sent for her most trusted advisor. When he entered her rooms, he found the Queen in a debilitated state. She shakily handed the note to him. He read it quickly.

“This is not from the prince,” he said.

“It has his seal.”

“He never would have written those words.”

“It is his hand.”

“Something is very wrong.”

“I know,” the Queen sobbed.

Early the next morning, the Queen told the handless maiden that it would be best for her to leave the castle until she figured out what was going on. Right now, both her and the baby’s life were in danger. The Queen packed a bag of provisions, and placed it carefully on the handless maiden’s back. Then, she swaddled the baby and strapped her to young woman’s chest. They would be safer in the woods.

“A week, my sweet child,” the Queen said with tears in her eyes. “Hide well.”

“What if he can’t find me?”

“He will find you. His love for you is true. I would swear my life on it.”

“I’m afraid,” the handless maiden said.

“You are stronger than you know,” the Queen said. “I would swear my life on that, too.”

And with that, the handless maiden was cast into the woods once more. The baby was breast feeding, so she did not have to worry about her nourishment, but the handless maiden grew weaker as the days passed, and she began to run out of provisions. After two weeks, she stopped counting the days. She walked and walked, stopping only to find shelter for the night. She rarely stayed in the same place for more than one night. She was lost in the dark forest with a baby strapped to her, not knowing where she was going or what she would find when she got there.

Days, she felt brave and free, and she sang with a chorus of birds to the baby, enjoying simple, quiet moments with her child under the sun dappled canopy. Nights, she burrowed with her child close to the ground, their shelter camouflaged under bushes. Though it offered no real protection, she tried to feel safe, and she pressed her baby to her breast, her heartbeat strong and loud. Never had she seen such a quiet, happy baby; it was as if she understood that it was best to be quiet in the dark forest, to hide until it was light again.

One day, the handless maiden was feeling especially weary. She had been moving through a dry area of the woods, and had not had anything to eat or drink for days. She did not know that the devil was watching her relentlessly. He had only three chances to take her, after the deal he had made with her father, but he could not take someone so pure. Because of that, he had already lost two chances; he was biding his time, waiting for the final opportunity to present itself.

When the handless maiden came across a small pond, she nearly cried, she was so thirsty, and she bent over the fluid surface to drink. The baby, swaddled and attached to her chest, saw something shiny in the water, and lunged forward to reach it, falling head-first into the pond. A pain she had never known seized the handless maiden as she plunged her useless silver hands into the water, to save her child. When she pulled the baby out from the depths, the handless maiden nearly fainted from shock; her hands were no longer silver, but flesh and bone.

She knew that no matter what happened next, she would survive.

When peace had been restored between the kingdoms, the prince returned home to find his wife and child missing. He searched the woods day and night, but he could not find them. The weather began to turn, and dry leaves fell from the trees. He found one of his wife’s silver hands washed up by the edge of a pond, and he began to fear the worst, but he would not leave the dark forest without them.

He had found her once before, unconscious, wounded and broken. He would find her again. But when he saw the apparition before him on the path, a beautiful young woman singing to a baby, alive and whole and happy, he thought he must be dreaming. He approached cautiously, but the woman sensed his presence and looked directly at him. She was no longer the handless maiden, or the miller’s daughter, or even the prince’s wife. She did not need to be saved. Everything had changed. Still, he reached for her hands, and brought them to his lips, kissing her palms and the tips of her fingers. Nothing had changed; her heart was the same heart, and he loved her.

He picked up the baby, took his love by the hand, and together, they left the dark forest and returned to the castle, where they all lived happily ever after.

*

the handless maiden by doncella mancaThe Handless Maiden by Doncella Manca


the gift

Anya looked outside the window as summer made way for fall, when the trees shyly shed their leaves in preparation for proud winter. She watched the branches sway in their green loveliness, knowing that all too soon they would be stripped bare to reveal their nakedness, exposing their innate desire to stretch and reach for the sun.

The afternoon light warmed Anya as she rocked in her chair, knitting. She was waiting for the one thing that would make her life complete and bring her full circle – the birth of her first great-grandchild, who she knew would be a girl, and who would be called Anya. The touch of the wool was soft and giving, almost as soft as the down on a baby’s back, and she longed to hold that child with a sudden fierceness that surprised her.

Closing her eyes, Anya descended into memory. She had died while she was being born. This was one of the first things she learned about herself, and it was at the core of her understanding who she was, for death had bequeathed her with a kiss, a curse – a gift that would follow her throughout her life. She thought about birth, about the entry into this world, and thought it cruel that the womb only held a child for nine months. To be that loved, wholly and completely safe … the thought brought a smile to her face. Then she thought about the children who were not wanted, who were not safe even in their mother’s wombs, and she could not make sense of it. It made her heart hurt, and her eyes winced with pain.

Anya opened her eyes again and thought she might have fallen asleep. The grandfather clock in the living room chimed several times. She thought about giving away the clock; it was useless to her now. She resented the ticking of seconds and the long, hollow chimes announcing each hour. She preferred to live by season, by the shifting light of each day. She woke when the birds began their morning song and the sky broke through its veil of darkness. She knew it was night when the light turned dark and the sun shattered into stars.

A knock on the door alerted the arrival of a visitor. The knock was a soft scratching, the sound reminiscent of the way her beloved stray used to return home in the evenings, so cautious, quietly insistent, eager to be let in. Anya smiled, knowing that it was Hope, the little girl who lived next door.

*

“Come in, child,” she called out, and listened for Hope’s hesitant footsteps as she walked through the kitchen , down the hallway, and into the sitting room. Anya sat up a little straighter in the chair and put her knitting into the basket beside her.

“Hello,” the girl said, peeking her head into the room first, as if she still wasn’t sure it was okay for her to enter.

“Don’t be shy,” Anya said. “Come, come,” she waved her closer, “should we continue where we left off? Or do you want to start from the beginning?”

Anya reached back into the basket and pulled out two decks of cards. She swung out the side table so that they would have a surface to play upon, then began shuffling. Hope pulled one of the chairs forward and sat down across from her. Two decks, 13 cards each, 7 hands. They played a game that Anya had made up long ago, and she changed the rules each time. The last time they played, they had only gotten through five hands, and Hope was losing badly. Anya had watched the girl compose herself as tears stung her eyes and she tried and failed and tried again; she was learning.

“Let’s start from the beginning.”

Hope’s feet swung in anticipation, her toes still not quite able to reach the floor. She looked around at the paintings and drawings Anya had made, always fascinated that the old woman had created such vibrant, strange art. Her eye traveled across the objects Anya had acquired from her travels all over the world. Hope often asked her questions about them, and sometimes Anya would respond with stories from her life. Hope listened, spellbound, as the hazy summer sun set in another time, lost in Anya’s memories, dreams of comrades and friends, artists and lovers, years of war, challenges, changes, new beginnings.

Hope took a deep breath and felt more calm than she had all day, all week even. The sound of splashing from a neighbor’s pool, laughter, and young shrieking voices carried across the wind into the room.

“Don’t you want to play with the other children?”

“No,” the girl answered.

She didn’t want to tell Anya that Chrissy wouldn’t allow the other kids to talk to her this week. She didn’t want to tell her that “this week” was going on the third week in a row. Ever since Chrissy caught her playing with Adam when it was his week, she’d been furious with her. Hope wasn’t trying to play with him. Adam came over to her when she was sitting outside, reading by the tree. He was so lonely, he was crying, and she never liked that game anyway; she thought it was mean. But no one else besides her would dare go against Chrissy. For the past three weeks, even Adam averted his eyes and pretended Hope didn’t exist.

“I like playing with you.”

“And I like playing with you too,” Anya smiled. She loved this little girl who appeared one day at her side door, eyes as big as moonflowers blooming in a dark, neglected garden.

“But it’s important to have friends your own age.”

The girl didn’t answer. She didn’t know what to say. She wanted to have friends her own age. She wanted to have friends like the characters in the books she loved to read, but she never met kids like that in real life. Chrissy wanted to make everyone in the neighborhood hate her, and she didn’t know why. They used to be friends. Chrissy said she wanted to be her best friend in the world. Then, she told all the kids her secrets, right in front of her, and laughed as if she was telling them all a joke. She told them that her parents always fought, that she wished she could live in a book, that she was waiting for her magic to appear. She told them that she still played with baby toys, even though she was twelve years old, even though those were the toys Chrissy had always wanted to play with when she came over, and they had made up complex stories with those little people and tiny houses.

“Amelia and David used to be my friends, but they moved away.”

She thought about her old friends, Amelia and David. They used to play a lot together. Her basement was their own private world, and Hope’s mother never bothered them. The first rainy day that they all played together, David said “I like to kiss girls” and Amelia said “I like to kiss girls too.” Hope had smiled at both of them and said, “that’s okay, I like to kiss girls and boys.”

After Amelia moved, it was just Hope and David. David liked to play superhero, and he used to tie her up with her jump rope, like in one of those saturday morning cartoons; he was the hero and the villain, and she was the heroine, captured, bound, waiting to be rescued. He liked to play cops and robbers and when he caught her, he’d put her in jail, then punish her with chinese tickle-torture until she laughed so hard she could barely breathe. He liked to play family, and he always wanted to be the dad. He insisting on taking care of the babies while Hope went to work, and cuddling all together when she came home.

When Chrissy’s family moved into Amelia’s house, Hope invited her over to play. David said “I like to play doctor” and Chrissy said “I like to play doctor too.” But when David started taking off his pants for a check up, Chrissy didn’t want to play anymore. She said that they were dirty and that she was going home. Chrissy’s mother told all the other mothers what happened. None of the neighborhood girls were allowed to play with David anymore, including Hope. Then, he moved away too.

“I wish I could go somewhere new,” Hope said.

“You will, someday,” Anya said, laying down her cards in a perfect spread.

Hope hadn’t even put down her hand yet. She gave her cards reluctantly to Anya to count. She would have to re-do the hand, while Anya moved on to the next one. Hope bit her lip. Anya would get double the points for this hand, while she got zero. She would never catch up.

“You can still win,” Anya said as if reading her thoughts, then began shuffling the cards again for the next hand.

“What’s that?” Hope asked, her eye catching the rainbow of colours in the knitting basket on the floor.

Anya smiled proudly. “My first great-grandchild will be born soon. I’m knitting a baby blanket for her … It’s my gift.”

“It’s beautiful,” Hope said wistfully.

“Do you know how to knit, child?”

“No …” the girl said. “Would you teach me?”

“Of course,” Anya said. “Next time.”

*

Alone, a wave of deep sadness and bittersweet nostalgia passed over her as she thought about her life, her endless dance with death. Anya knew that if she was damned to eternal return, she would have no regrets. She had lived a full life. She had lived as an artist, a wife, a mother, an independent woman. She was proud of the work she had done. The love of her life was an army man; she had lost him in the last war. She had lived more years without him than she had with him, but she still loved him as much as the day she had married him. He had blessed her with three beautiful children who brought her so much joy. Her life had been filled with love; she had amazing family, incredible friends, passionate lovers. Now, all of her friends and lovers were gone. Now, her children were all grown, with families of their own. Now, her eyes and hands didn’t work the way they used to, and she hadn’t been able to paint or draw in years. Now, she was alone.

There was a knock at the door.

Since becoming friends with Hope over the summer, she had grown used to having a daily visitor. But Hope only came in the afternoon, after lunch. She listened again. It was not Hope’s knock. This knock was impatient, forceful, angry. Anya got up from her chair and slowly made her way into the kitchen, to see who it was.

A girl about Hope’s age stood outside the screen door. She looked like a corn-fed child model, blonde and blue eyed and rosy cheeked, with a splash of freckles across the bridge of her nose. The girl smiled.

“Can I help you?” Anya asked.

“Can I come in?” the girl asked, pulling at the door. The door did not open. The door was unlocked.

“Why are you here?” Anya asked bluntly.

“I know that Hope has been coming here. I’ve seen her. You let Hope come in. Why won’t you let me in?” the girl pulled at the door again.

“I’m sorry child … there is nothing for you here.”

“You are teaching Hope, aren’t you?” the girl said angrily, nearly spitting out the words.

“I’m afraid I don’t know what you are talking about.”

Anya reprimanded herself for leaving the side door open. All that stood between her and the girl was a flimsy screen. She felt the frailty of her old woman’s body betray her only for a moment. Then, her eyes burned. She put one hand on her hip, and the other on the knob of the heavy door that stood ajar, ready to close it.

“I think you do.” The girl held her eyes, and Anya felt a chill run through her bones. “And I’m telling you to stop. Because if you don’t stop, I will make you stop.”

“Are you threatening me child?”

“No,” the girl said, still smiling. “It’s not a threat. It’s a promise.”

“Go home, child. Don’t come back here.”

A woman’s voice pierced the silence between them, calling out into the quickly darkening sky: “Chrissy! Chrissssy! Come home!”

The girl rolled her eyes then called back in a sweet sing-song voice, “coming!” She glared at Anya one last time and left.

*

Hope’s mother kept the blinds closed so that no sunlight would enter the house. They didn’t have air conditioning so the absence of sun made the inside of the house about 10 degrees cooler than it was outside. Still, it was hot.

Hope sat with her brother in the dark at the dining room table, but they did not talk to each other. Her brother watched television with a focus he only seemed to have when the tv was on, which is probably why her mother always kept it on. Hope finished her sandwich and drank the last of her milk before she asked her mother for permission to go to Anya’s house. Hope’s mother was sitting in the shadowy kitchen alone, smoking again. It seemed that the bitter-sharp scent of tobacco, smoke and ash, remnants of fire, had become part of her mother’s moody silences since her parents stopped fighting. Now, they only fought when her dad came home, and that seemed to happen less and less often these days. The silence seemed just as loud.

“Hope … Miss Anya is a lovely old woman, and I know you think of her as a friend but –”

“She is my friend!”

Hope’s mother inhaled her cigarette.

“Do you want to take your brother with you?”

“No,” Hope said quickly, but seeing her mother’s eyebrows rise, she added, “Miss Anya is going to teach me how to knit. He’d be in the way.”

“I know how to knit … I could teach you.”

“I’ve never seen you knit.”

“Well, I used to knit. I’m sure I remember how … My grandmother taught me … Grandma even knit the blanket you loved so much. Don’t you remember?”

“Grandma made my blanket?” Hope asked.

“No … my grandmother made it. Your great-grandmother. She died a long time ago, right after you were born … I know I’ve told you about her a million times. Don’t you remember? You were named after her …”

“Oh yeah,” Hope said. “So can I go?”

“All right,” her mother exhaled noisily. “Just be home for dinner.”

“Will dad be home for dinner?” Hope asked.

Her mother didn’t answer at first, and in the pause, Hope regretted asking. It had just come out, she wasn’t thinking. Her mother crushed her cigarette in the ashtray and immediately lit another one, retreating further into a cloud of smoke and the shadows of the kitchen.

“I don’t know,” her mother said.

*

Hope peeked outside the window. The sun was blindingly bright. She wanted to make sure that no one was outside. Anya was her secret friend, and she wanted to keep it that way. After making sure that the coast was clear, she would go outside quickly, then run across the lawn and through the hedge of rose-of-sharon, which led directly to Anya’s side door. It only took a minute, since the houses had been developed side by side and were very close together, but that minute had Hope’s heart racing.

When she arrived, panting from the mad dash and sweating under the hot sun, she knocked tentatively, then waited until she heard Miss Anya call, “Come in, child.”

It was as if hearing those words had a magical calming effect on her, and all of her problems just disappeared. She always entered the house reverently, cherishing the quiet peacefulness of Anya’s space. It was so unlike her own house, with her parents fighting and her brother whining and the television always on. She sometimes wondered how she was even able to read with all the noise, but books remained another sacred space, and when she opened one, she seemed to fall into another world.

Anya was in the sitting room, knitting furiously. She was trying to decide whether or not she should mention the other girl’s visit, but when she saw Hope’s face, so eager and trusting, she decided not to worry her. She beckoned Hope forward hastily.

“Come now, we haven’t got all day,” she said.

Hope sat in the chair across from her. On the side table were two knitting needles and several balls of yarn in different colours.

“How is the blanket coming along?”

“Good … good …” Anya said, “I haven’t got much time left. The baby’s coming very soon, sooner than they think … go ahead child, choose the colour you like, and I will show you what to do.”

Hope picked up the balls of yarn. They were soft and light and each one had a slightly different texture. One was glossy and black as a raven’s wing, another was pink-purple and reminded her of the big blooms on the hydrangea bush in her backyard. She chose the blended green and blue wool, because when she held it in her hands, she imagined she was holding a small globe, a miniature planet earth.

“I see,” Anya smiled, “you want to recreate the world.”

Hope laughed. “Are you going to teach me how to make a blanket?”

“Hmm … you have time for that yet. I think you should make something simple, but useful, to start. A scarf would be nice … you could wear it all winter, and if you make it long enough, you’ll never outgrow it.”

“Okay,” Hope agreed.

Anya finished another row and when her hands were free, she took the yarn from Hope and began whirling the thread around one of the needles.

“Beginning is the hardest,” Anya said.

Hope watched her measure each stitch on the needle, making sure the width would be good for a scarf. Then she showed her how to use the other needle to push through and behind each loop, twirling the yarn across the top, pulling the needle through the front, and then easing each stitch from one needle to the other.

“And when you get to the end,” Anya instructed, “you begin again.”

“Got it,” Hope said.

Anya placed the knitting needles and yarn into Hope’s outstretched hands, then resumed her work on the baby blanket. For awhile they worked in silence, the only sound being the gentle scrape of needle against needle, the whirring of Anya’s handiwork, and Hope’s slow but steady progress.

“I think it’s really nice that you are making a blanket for the baby,” Hope said. “It’s a wonderful gift.”

“Oh, I’m glad to do it,” Anya replied.

“My mom told me that my grandmother – no, my great-grandmother – knitted a blanket for me when I was born. I don’t remember her though. She died after I was born. Her name was Hope, too …”

Anya stopped knitting, a split-second pause.

“That blanket was my favorite thing when I was little. I remember that I used to sleep with it, like it was a stuffed animal. For a long time, I couldn’t sleep without it.”

“Do you still have it?”

“Of course!” Hope said. “But I never sleep with it anymore. I mean, almost never. I mean, sometimes … but only when I have bad dreams or if I really, really can’t sleep.”

“And it helps you … sleep?”

“Yes. But I’m not supposed to sleep with it anymore. They took it away from me because they said I was too old for a baby blanket … I cried so much they gave it back. But I’m not supposed to sleep with it anymore. It’s in my closet. Sometimes just knowing it is there is enough.”

“Yes,” Anya said absently.

“I know this will sound silly, but when I was little I used to pretend that it was a magic blanket. I thought it would protect me from bad things.”

“No, that doesn’t sound silly at all.” Anya cleared her throat. “I’d love to see it sometime, if you don’t mind.”

Hope hesitated. She never took the blanket out of the house. No one had ever asked to see it, not even the kids she had told about it before she learned to keep certain things to herself.

Anya continued, “I always like to see the work of others. Not too many people knit anymore. It’s an art form, really …”

“I will bring it next time,” Hope said. She never took her blanket out of the house, but she would make an exception for Anya. She thought that Anya was the best friend she had ever had, and she felt her heart swell.

*

Dusk turned to darkness. Anya watched her reflection shape and form in the window. She was an old woman. Just that afternoon, she had been a young girl, almost thirteen, the same age as Hope. Each year was imbedded in her; she was not just the age the current year accounted for, she was each age up to and including that year. She was twelve. She was forty-two. She was ninety. The calendar in the kitchen delineated time into small squares and numbers. It was like the clock, another false construct.

The baby would not know to arrive on a specific day. She would come into this world when she was ready. Later, she would learn the day and month and year. In school, the child would learn to tell time, and as an adult, she would live by time. Later, much later, Anya thought, the child will turn her back on time, when the cycle reverses itself, when she lives closer to the womb-state, when she is dancing.

*

The tentative knock at the door alerted Anya to the girl’s arrival.

She prayed that Hope had remembered to bring the blanket. All night, she had dreamed about it, vivid strange dreams that dissipated as soon as she woke, nightmares that kept waking her in a cold sweat of panic and confusion. When the sun rose again, the one thought in Anya’s mind was Hope’s blanket. All day, she had anxiously waited for her.

“Come in, child,” she called, but when she heard the footsteps in the hallway, she knew at once that was not Hope’s footfall.

Too late. She had invited her in.

The girl strode into the room. Blonde, blue eyed, rosy cheeked. The girl who had made Hope’s life so hard. The girl who could not open the door without her permission. The girl who made her blood run cold.

“I told you to stop teaching Hope.”

Anya did not pause; she continued knitting furiously, the blanket exploding with a rainbow of kaleidoscopic colour.

“I told you not to come back here.”

*

Anya wasn’t answering the door. Hope knocked again, slightly louder, thinking that maybe she had fallen asleep or something. But that had never happened, and the heavy door was open, as if waiting for her to arrive. In Hope’s arms were the knitting needles, the yarn, and her baby blanket. She looked around furtively. At least a minute went by and Anya still didn’t answer the door. Hope began to worry. What if Anya fell? She was very old … She thought about going back home, maybe her mother would know what to do. But as soon as she turned to leave, another voice inside her told her to go inside. The voice told her that Anya needed her help.

Hope opened the door quietly. She walked straight to the sitting room, and when she entered the room, she was so shocked, she stopped dumb-struck. Chrissy was in the room, leaning over Anya.

Anya was struggling. Her voice was muffled. Her arms and legs were flailing uselessly, her old woman’s body overcome by the young girl’s strength. Chrissy had something over Anya’s face.

Hope dropped the things in her arms and ran into the room, shouting “NO.”

Chrissy turned, surprised, still holding the throw pillow in her hands. Anya gasped for breath, a horrifying, wheezing sound. Hope flew across the room and into Chrissy, pushing her away from Anya and knocking her to the floor.

“Miss Anya … are you okay?” Anya shook her head, pointing desperately at Hope, behind Hope.

Hope felt her hair being pulled, pulled so hard that her body jerked backwards. She spun around to face Chrissy, and Chrissy began to hit her. Hope remembered the time that Chrissy had given her a black eye. All she had done was win the game they were playing. She had played fair. But Chrissy didn’t like to lose. She had thrown the game board across the room and started punching her. After, Chrissy told her to lie and say she got hit with a ball while they were playing catch. She said that if she told the truth she would hurt her even worse. She said she had a knife, and that no one would believe her anyway.

This time, Hope was not afraid.

She lashed out blindly, punching, slapping, clawing, kicking. Tears streamed down her face, as if every blow she inflicted on Chrissy was hurting her, too. From far away, she heard Chrissy sobbing, crying “stop, stop.” But Hope did not stop. She thought for a moment that she would never stop, that she could beat Chrissy for the rest of her life, that she could cross the line from defense and protection into cruelty. From far away, she heard Anya calling her name. She stopped. She grabbed Chrissy by the arm and pulled her out of the room, down the hallway and into the kitchen, where she held her at the door.

“You’re lucky I didn’t take that pillow and do to you what you were about to do to Miss Anya. You’re lucky I’m not calling the police right now.” Hope dug her fingernails into Chrissy’s arm. “But if you ever come near Miss Anya or me again, you’re dead.”

She pushed Chrissy towards the screen, swinging the door open, shoving her through the threshold while releasing her grip on her arm, causing the girl to stumble and fall on the broken sidewalk.

*

Hope closed the door and locked it with the chain, then walked slowly back to Anya. She felt sick. She was shaking. She was crying. Places on her body were sore and her head was pounding.

Anya was sitting in the rocking chair, holding Hope’s baby blanket, cradling it in her arms. When Hope entered the room, she looked up. Tears were glistening in her eyes.

“Chrissy will never hurt you again,” she said, “But there will be others. Others will try. No matter how much they hurt you, they will never break you. You are strong, stronger than you may ever know. Come here, child.”

Hope pulled a chair close to her, and sat down. Anya spread the blanket out between them, so it covered both of their knees.

“Touch it,” she said, and Hope did. A feeling of calm washed over her. She sighed deeply, releasing all the tension inside her.

“You are gifted, Hope.”

The girl looked at Anya in confusion. Anya continued, “that is why Chrissy hated you. That is why others will try to break you.”

“I don’t understand … Do you mean … I have magic?”

“Not exactly,” Anya laughed. “But nevertheless, there is magic in the gift. Your great-grandmother’s gift is woven into this blanket, she gave it to you. Have you ever noticed that you feel things very strongly? That you are extraordinarily sensitive, not just in your heart, but in all your senses – what you touch, what you hear, what you see?”

“I don’t know … people do say I’m too sensitive, sometimes.”

“Did your mother ever tell you about the circumstances of your birth?”

“Why?” Hope asked. She shifted uncomfortably in the chair.

“What did she say?”

“She said that … the umbilical cord was wrapped around me neck a lot of times. She said that my heart stopped beating. The nurse thought I died. But I didn’t die – ”

“You died, Hope.”

“No, I didn’t. It was a mistake. The nurse made a mistake.”

“You died. You died while you were being born, and then you came back to be born again. You lived. Your spirit, your soul, was so strong that death could not take you. People who have experienced life and death so quickly have a special kind of knowledge, a vision, a gift. As you grow older, the form your gift will take will become clearer, and you will have a responsibility to trust that gift, no matter where it takes you. It will not be easy. Sometimes it will feel like you are living in an entirely different world than the others. People will sense your difference, your strangeness. Some will hate you for it. Some will love you for it. Your life will be more difficult because of it. But your life will also be richer, fuller, filled with incredible beauty. The gift may pain you, but it will never fail to protect you. These things work both ways.”

*

Hope told her mother that she wasn’t hungry, that she’d rather stay in her room instead of coming down to dinner.

“We’re eating together, as a family, and I don’t care if you are hungry or not, you are going to sit with us.”

When Hope entered the dining room, she saw the table set for three. Her little brother was already sitting down, filling his plate.

“I thought you said we were eating as a family,” she said.

Her mother’s face fell; the assertive composure that she had held only a moment before crumbled, and Hope felt a stab of pain.

“We are,” she said quietly, her voice quivering.

Then she looked at Hope and saw the bruises and scratches on her face. She reached out to her, asking “Hope … what happened?”and the girl burst into tears.

Her mother put her arms around her and held her close, the way she used to hold her when she was little, that completely. And together they cried, for all they had lost, for all they were going to find, and they stayed in the embrace for a long time until Hope’s little brother said in a surly voice, “get a room,” and they laughed and laughed, pulling him into their wild, joyful hug.

*

Everything was changing.

Only a week later, Chrissy was gone. When the moving van came, it seemed almost too good to be true. The neighborhood kids stayed indoors, peeking from their windows, watching to see if it was really true. No one gathered outside to say goodbye, the way they had for Amelia and David. After the moving van pulled away from the curb, the kids emerged from their houses one by one. No one talked about Chrissy. They played games they used to play when they were little – freeze tag, kick the can, ghost in the graveyard. They laughed loudly and ran in the street, wild and free. Then school started, and Hope became very busy very quickly with new classes, new teachers, new friends. By the end of September, Anya told Hope that she was going to stay with her daughter for awhile; the baby was coming early, just as she had expected. Hope didn’t want her to go. She hugged her tightly before she left, hoping that Anya knew how much she loved her, how grateful she was to have known her. Hope knew that she would never see her again, at least not in this lifetime.

Everything had changed.

Hope looked outside the window as summer made way for fall, when the trees shyly shed their leaves in preparation for proud winter. She watched the branches sway in their green loveliness, knowing that all too soon they would be stripped bare to reveal their nakedness, exposing their innate desire to stretch and reach for the sun.

*


lariat

The Big Book of Submission: 69 Kinky Tales is now available!

This anthology, edited by Rachel Kramer Bussel and published by Cleis Press, contains 69 short-short stories by as many authors. I’m so happy to have my story “Lariat” included in this collection! “Lariat” is linked to another story of mine called “Ring of Fire,” which was published in Best Bondage Erotica 2014.

I had already written “Ring of Fire” when I saw the call for submissions, and I knew that I wanted to submit it.  “Ring of Fire” is about two people in a BDSM relationship who celebrate their anniversary by renewing their vows to each other. At the time, there was also a call for “short-short stories of submission.” I don’t usually write stories under 1k words, but I wanted to do something fun, so I decided to give the characters in “Ring of Fire” a beginning.

I was thrilled when both stories were accepted! Both of these stories are a little more psychological, and a conscious attempt on my part to explore the positive and healthy aspects of committed loving relationships that include hot BDSM play/sex.

Both The Big Book of Submission and Best Bondage Erotica 2014 are available in bookstores and online in all formats. If you are interested in BDSM and erotic stories of immeasurable variations, you will love these anthologies!

*