Monthly Archives: December 2011


See the blue tablecloth spread with yellow dishes,

the day’s eye glazing the window panes.

It is mid- summer or maybe early spring,

and floating up from the linden trees

come voices spiced like saffron

or rich as the African yam.


We linger, sated, relishing the sense

that we have once again performed the trick,

bodied forth the insubstantial tidings of the week,

praised the children who, distracted,

overwhelmed by the terrible tedium of childhood,

kick their chairs and mess their food.


Those side tables, artfully arranged,

frame our own bright selves

now steadfast, nearly stout, middle-aged;

the coffee cups are readied, the sugar and cream.

See the shadowed eyes and slight tremor

of hands we would unabashedly kiss

but that they nurse the tea with lemon

poured from a copper samovar.


And everyone is waiting, breathless,

for the cake studded with raisins

that you will slice and hand around,

the sweets we’ll taste with throats

moistened by premonitory tears.

It is given to you: eat.

© 2011 Carol Alexander

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Leaving the Familiar

C.G. went to the forest. She lied about going on a sleepover―at Eleanor’s, Ma, and found her parents’ trusting, Okay, Cee, maliciously benign. She slammed the front door, shouted an apology and left, to pedal furiously along the road winding like a concrete shoreline by the river. At its end she hid her bike under bushes.

A farmer she recognized from the Saturday market allowed her on the back of his pickup along with his cants, toms, corn and berries. She ate one ear of fresh, raw corn while she was in the back of that truck, threw the husk to the floorbed and let the silk glide in the air to the road.

At Tadpole Creek, where the side road meets the highway, the farmer stopped; she cut him off before he could ask any questions. “A good kid,” he decided and drove on.

Again she hitched. Lowered her thumb when three different drivers who made her anxious slowed. Accepted a lift from a teenage boy whose great ambition was showing off his red four-door. The road ended; he yanked the emergency brake. She fidgeted with her ponytail and thanked him, trying to blend finality with gratitude. She was going solo and needed him to understand.

His face flushed while she listed her scouting badges in outdoor survival.

“I-I-I was an Eagle Scout,“ he said.

Two ravens met overhead, exchanged ancient caws and flapped away.

The boy worried a speck of dust on a fender. “Okay, then.“ C.G. watched as he backed up; held her breath when he stopped; breathed with relief when he shrugged at her insistence she was fine and drove off.

Holy cow. She scampered up another, smaller road, this one gravel, past a deserted campground. It was too early in the year for campers; the park service wasn’t recommending anyone hike until June, and all the better. She loved the month of May, its flower baskets and magic Celtic feel. May a good month for a quest.

She reached the trailhead and pressed onward, gaining 300 feet in ten minutes; putting real distance between her and the bothersome world, drawing herself into the Cascades.

When she spotted blueberry bushes, she crawled under to lie on her back and stare at swaying pines and hemlocks in the misty air. She looked past ripe green leaves of the blueberries to the deep and silver greens above. Drops of water slid from leaves, splashed into her eyes and magnified the flattened structure of each leaf and tension of droplets, the universe enlarged. She remembered a time she was with her sisters and parents driving. There was no outdoors in that memory. There was only the enclosed space of an old, gray car. In the back seat, an older sister on either side, sat C.G. The family was lost. Her father swore. Her mother prayed. Each sister pinched her and she’d cried. Did they care? Nah.

She started walking and realized that wile her mind stayed anchored back home, the trail was too wet for distractions; her judgment failed, her foot was sucked into slick mud. She teetered, yanked her boot out―she was strong―and make her way onward, concentrating on the present.

Clouds abounded but there was no rain; the air rang sweet and dank. C.G. headed for a rocky area that looked safe, veered away, choosing in favor of comfort. Her mattress that night was to be an almost convex surface with a patch of resilient undergrowth. She shook out plastic, unrolled her pad and sleeping bag; stretched her tarp above, fixing it between a tall dense bush and a tree.

Water from a nearby brook was so cold it made her head ache; she filled her jug. Four matches wouldn’t ignite, then bla-zooie, a fifth flamed so she could light her small stove. She sipped hot tea, chewed raisins and cashews.

And studied the wonder of a mountain with aspens and maples emerging from its slopes. You’re my spirit guide, she informed its unmovable form. Witches used cats for familiars. But I have you, my beauty. Mountains were women, she decided.

A quick sparkle above the peak made her heart race. Was this was a sign? Hey! She waited for more, but the sky became hazy wool; she crawled into her sleeping bag, and fell asleep like slumber was an enchanted well and she’d been thrown in. Once she woke and stuck her head out from the tarp. She craned toward the summit where this time she thought she saw a flash, but after groping for her glasses―stashed in a boot―she was disappointed. The sky was dim and dull. And vast and unsettling, she thought with the confidence of the impassioned, to anyone who was not on a mission such as I am.

At sunrise she heated water to boil the two eggs she’d brought as a treat. She manged to drop both and saw the yolk spread on the ground; her breakfast was brown bread.

She needed something―armor or strength against meddlers of the world―to maintain herself―Carla Genevieve Matilda Standish-McMannis (as soon as she saved up the money she was changing her name, that was a given, what kind of parents hyphenated―or let two daughters have a say in naming the third?). She sorted and rolled her gear and slung her arms through her khaki backpack’s straps. Clouds scuttled, exposing her mountain’s classic peak the color of cedar, bare at its crest of everything but snow, a glacier on an oddly sloping side.

The final half-mile to the gap was strewn with rocks and boulders and she had to pick her way with care, step-by-step, sometimes one hand against a boulder to steady herself. This tedious climbing, this sense of being tossed and tumbled, left her grumpy. She wanted to be on level ground and when, after so many deliberated steps she could walk freely, C.G. threw herself on flat greenery. In her bliss she saw short climbs of 300 or 400 feet and across the valleys in all directions, the glorious range of mountains of which her peak―cipher and sibyl―was part.

What’s the secret?she asked; how do you do it? It seemed stoic, unless the occasional rock slide was a mountain’s way of complaining. It outlasted trees; would outlast anyone she was related to.

She rolled on her side. Before her was a tiny floating ghost of a mountain, a doppelganger which vaporized to became the sum of its parts and the essence of that sum: a mystical cloud wafting towards her, hovering, and in an instant, dissipating.

Are you playing tricks on me?

The cloud reappeared and disappeared.

Her family would smirk if they heard about her vision―and maybe they’d be right. It was weird.

We need to stop thinking and get to work. Was that her mother’s voice? In my mind’s stupid ear. The indoctrination would follow her to whatever corner of the globe she fled. She trudged up another 200 or 300 feet where she found a hollow tree to lean against as she ate a piece of bread and a few cashews. Clouds sped by, their spreading shadows dragging along green curves, the peaks and slope of the land beneath, slowly and sensuously.

Like a hand.

That was how lovers touched lovers. She just knew it―no experience necessary. She considered her mission―how to become so important every star in the sky would know her, every human on earth would love her, love C.G., for who she was. She tried to picture her life unfolding into high school and college and jobs and travel and maybe family. What she imagined was the short form of a decent life, the form without worry, disappointment or injustice. In her imagined future, she moved with grace and importance through jobs, award and applause. C.G. was fully in the future. When she looked around she was disoriented, then sensed she was being watched.

Who’s there?

Was that a rustle in that tree? Her neck was plugged into an electric cord―her hair was straight and flying. Maybe another hiker was messing with her. Maybe red-car boy was a psycho and she’d missed the signs. An eagle flew in the distance. Had to mean something.

In an effort to make the eerie humdrum, C.G. whistled and ran her hands through her wild hair, rocked herself eye-level with a hollow in the log. Oh, not a good idea. She saw two eyes, white and round and chestnut and peering―with the sure, cold insight―from inside the dead tree. Damn. C.G. was afraid to move. But that was why she was here. For a test. To get strong.

Leave! she demanded. The afternoon felt quiet. She tried to sing, but notes fell to her lap. Time for me, then, she muttered, standing up, squinting left and right. Time for me to scout the best route out. She assured herself, It’s all gonna be fine and dandy, dandy and fine. The warm sun soothed, the air was soft and pine-scented. She hadn’t figured life out yet, but she was scoring points and she had another night. A whole other night.

She swung her pack off the ground but the freaking bulky thing was alive. She dropped it and jumped away.

C.G. knew she had to get going, and that she couldn’t leave her backpack with all her provisions. She inhaled seriously, like her oldest sister did when practicing yoga, then closed her eyes and put her finger on her third eye. Wow. Energy circled into her index finger, hand, arm and coursed through her body. She lifted her pack; her fingers curled around the strips. Everything inside was inert. She settled it on her back and laughed she’d thought there had to be a battle between bad and good, darkness and light. She wasn’t Guinevere or St. Joan, wasn’t brave as Harriet Tubman or defiant as Antigone.

“You haven’t come into your own, dearie.”

C.G. almost collapsed. A hand encircled her with short fingers which barely curled over half her forearm, but they were strong. It was attached to a creature, No, not a creature, a woman, but a woman like no one I’ve ever seen.

“I’m real,” the creature, female, said.

Something happened―a movement of clouds―a play of light and dark. C.G. could see the female’s gray eyes which saw her as she wasn’t sure she wanted to be seen. That creature had too much wisdom for any one person or any one creature.

“Are you sure you’re real?”

Something scuttled along the ground. They were too high for snakes but C.G. did a quick jig, the kind you do when you don’t want an unknown near your ankles.

“Real enough.” The non-human feline almost smiled. “I’m a…” she paused, and C.G. thought her expression was cynical or sarcastic, the kind teachers and parents hated. “I’m what’s known as a crone.”

The crone―for sure not a word the woman liked using to describe herself―crouched next to her. C.G. saw she was beautiful in the way women could be―with lines and imperfections and supreme confidence in their power.

“See this?” The old woman blew on her palm and the air filled with dust that was more than dust. C.G.’s eyes stung and her throat hurt. “Not earth. Just clutter. Something temporal.” She assumed C.G. understood or knew enough to get the drift. “Don’t let yourself be so pulled into it.”

C.G. shuddered. She realized night was on the way.

The woman not quite real, or too real, pulled at her long matted hair. “You’re not there yet, but it’s there for you, someday. I have no magic for you and no more advice and about that I don’t care.” And disappeared. C.F. heard a howl or cackle.

She knew she’d better move, and would have but she no longer knew what move meant. It had something to do with her feet and legs, right? The last thing she wanted to be was a news item―Missing Mountain Teen, or the focus of an editorial on the burden of inexperienced campers on search-and-rescue teams. She was ashamed for such a trivial thought after such a momentous meeting, but then nothing was good or bad. Her feet tingled like they’d fallen asleep and were waking up. She hauled down a different trail, found a spot midway down and set up. After slunging up her tarp and boiling water, she crawled into her sleeping bag, a hot canteen by her feet.

Now, a tarp thrown over a rope to make an A-frame shelter is no tent. Each end is exposed to the fathomless black of a mountain night. The tarp didn’t afford much protection, but she barreled into an exhausted sleep.

And woke a few hours later to hear a shrill and gripping whine as if all of life’s suffering as knew it at her age had been drawn out in one audible line of pain. The pain of a life without every person alive cheering her on.

It’s over. She was ready to die. The crone showed up to lead me to the next world.

Was she was breathing? Her life would have flashed by, but she hadn’t come to the mountain to review her life. She’d come to prepare for it.

The chanting stopped.

When she woke at break of day, she saw raindrops beading the tarp. She became a spin of smooth and even impulse, packing, slipping on her large, bright poncho, tending to the details.

The mystery of life: some fear, some pain, some cessation. Some joy. Some tranquility. That wasn’t the answer but she was preparing to find an answer, maybe in a few years, maybe on her deathbed. She squinted through mist. Trees like troops flanked the mountain’s stout sides. Her spirit leaned, then sank, into the hillside of evergreens.

She reached the trailhead and made her way to she the gravel road where, in the late afternoon, she was picked up by a friendly threesome of fishermen in a station wagon. She sat in the far back with a collie and a golden retriever while the men talked.

“What we didn’t catch this trip just won’t be caught.”

“Nothing like it.”

“Not nothing.”

“We got some good fish.”


“Good fish and good fishing.”

They dropped her off on the river road at her bike hideaway. The boy with the red car anxiously waited. He asked if she was okay, poured her coffee from his thermos and told her he’d spent most of the time since he dropped her off driving between the trailhead where he’d let her off and the river Then her sisters pulled up. On a hunch they’d called the friend she claimed she was visiting; noted her missing bike and pack; rummaged through maps on her desk; sweated it out; said nothing to their parents. The boy tied ’s bike to the roof of the family car, and waved.

She was glad to be with her sisters even though they didn’t stop crabbing―she was foolhardy, she was a dope. But together they snuck her through the back door so she could bathe, dress in her flannel bed clothes and greet her mother and father with respect and cordiality. Her parents kissed her with love and the usual confusion.

When she bolted upright at three a.m., hearing the chant, she called out, remembered the wail could end. She remembered the crone, and fell asleep, one hand dangling off the mattress above a small clump of earth she’d shaken from her boots.

© 2011 Sarah Gancher Sarai

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I may have been too fat in my one-piece bathing suit but I thought I looked like Joan Baez, with my long straight brown hair and wise face. That pleased me, to look like a famous singer who represented moral passion and a dedication to music while expressing our moods and transforming our spirits. It was the Seventies.

Patty, Ingrid and Barb—virtually nude in bikinis—hadn’t assumed poses of the renowned and talented. Sunbathing with me on the lower terrace of my San Diego backyard, they sat at their ease watching the play in the swimming pool as if their children were the cherubs of the gods. My friends’ company usually cheered me, but I couldn’t feel part of their cohort that day.

Some days at the pool I taught the older youngsters to dive properly, but that day I couldn’t be bothered to teach let alone enjoy children’s antics. “Marco!” somebody shouted. “Polo!” somebody answered, and the pool came alive with shouting. Their noisy play didn’t interest me. I adjusted my sunglasses and gazed at the empty flower-pots lining the fence around the pool. It certainly didn’t occur to me to hum Joan Baez tunes.

As soon as I’d settled myself, my four-year-old daughter joined me, clinging to my leg. Her warm body seemed menacing, like she might bite me. I’m not sure why I let that fantastic notion take hold, but I often felt little Maggie could hurt me. She needed my attention every minute, pulling at me with a neediness that seemed a threat to my life.

“Tyler ran away again,” Patty announced, clapping a torn straw hat on her blond head. “Yesterday at the beach it took me forty-five minutes to find that kid. When I caught up with him he wasn’t hurt or even missing us. Sometimes I think he’s smarter than I am.”

“Teach him to read,” I suggested. “He’ll get into Proust while you play volleyball. God knows you’ve got enough books. He’s nearly four. He can do it.” Patty loved books. She shed them like a molting bird. They fell from her tote-bag, cluttered her car, lay open and spattered on her kitchen counter. She imbibed books like strong drink and knew arcane facts about the Supreme Court and arms treaties. Come to think of it, she also had a handsome, well-read husband who inspired my fantasies.

Patty didn’t look like a mommy. Her thin athletic frame was more suited to cross-country running. I was the one who looked like a mother: tall, full-breasted, a classic matron. The Fates, however, had not willed me the pregnancy I’d dreamed of; I was infertile. The three goddesses had instead blessed skinny Patty, who had three boys.

Five years ago I’d given up my teaching at the high school to be a mother of adopted infants. Babies were easily available to adopt in those days, and we thought they could be molded into our version of perfection if we were model parents. I’d intended to form my children—like a potter with clay—into agreeable, well-adjusted, clever people. Being a mother seemed the perfect challenge. I’d need to be patient and loving, an ideal tutor. The role would improve my character, and I’d become, well, motherly, a totem figure worthy of worship.

I’d be as good at parenting as I’d been at teaching. How hard could it be? Very hard, I learned. The loneliness at home with my daughter and her five-year-old brother was intolerable. Our son now went to kindergarten, but I spent every day at home with a little girl who resisted any directions, had little to say, and demanded my company. It felt like everything had ended with the adoptions of the babies, and I missed my classes and colleagues every day. I wished I’d run off with the basketball coach. He’d made a tempting offer.

Perhaps the changes we’d brought about in the Sixties made us think we could influence, even create, human beings. After all, we’d burned away entrenched values in the same way the sun burned away the water on our skin. We’d undermined the established culture by confronting restrictive laws, protesting policies of discrimination and war. We could do anything. Except I couldn’t. Nothing worked for me as it should have. My daughter balked at our wonderful progressive preschool. She didn’t enjoy the carefully chosen books I found for her or the educational excursions I planned.

I secured a pair of “floaties” around Maggie’s arms and watched her happily enter the shallow end of the pool by herself, her sun-bleached thick hair bobbing in two pony-tails. She kicked and splashed in the silken water—a California waterbaby—her tanned body sturdy and smooth. Following her movements, our spaniel, Daisy, crept along the poolside as if she could protect the child by intense scrutiny. I knew my friends also watched my daughter. I knew they thought I was too concerned about Maggie, too worried that something was wrong with her.

Patty sat up and faced me, frowning under her floppy hat. “Elaine, look at Maggie. She’s beautiful! She’ll be swimming and taking that slide in a week. If she grows up to marry Tyler, they’ll start a new race.” Patty liked to make pronouncements.

My athletic friend was trying to make me stop obsessing about Maggie’s disturbing ways that frightened me. She often screamed with rage and wouldn’t eat. She fought with the other children. Worst of all, she wouldn’t talk much. Doctors—I’d taken her to three so far—reassured me there was nothing wrong with her. I didn’t believe them and concluded that Maggie had “fetal alcohol syndrome,” resulting from her birth mother’s drinking. I’d read books about it. Patty—with her handsome husband, healthy boys, and literate soul—couldn’t know what I was going through with my daughter.

“Mark likes to wander too,” Ingrid sighed, observing her son wade tentatively into the pool, a tube around his waist. Relocated to California from Germany with her American husband, Ingrid had defied our long-haired look, preferring a short haircut. Today she’d even put a ridiculous hanky on her head as a sun-screen. With her German accent and unshaven armpits and legs, she looked the foreigner among us. “If I don’t catch him he pees in public,” she added, following little Mark’s every move. Two boys jumped off the side of the pool, holding their noses, and splashed Mark deliberately. The timid little boy and his wary mother, outsiders here in our California paradise, seemed tragic figures to me that day, human sacrifices to ridiculous disorderly chaos.

“If any place can help Maggie find herself, it’s our pre-school,” Ingrid said as she moved to the edge of the pool to be closer to her son. She sat and dangled her feet, rippling the ice blue surface. Ingrid could be counted on to mention our little school at the Unitarian Church, forever promoting it as a center of innovative child-care. We four mothers volunteered there and supported its progressive philosophy. For Ingrid, a teacher at the preschool, the place was celestial, model of enlightenment. She went on, “I think Maggie will get over her problems and will like school one of these days. It’s a readiness thing.”

Ingrid’s wisdom reached beyond faith in the preschool. Her European spirit seemed ancient, rising out of hidden places. I sensed a beneficent perceptiveness in her like fresh spring water enlivening the dry earth. One day years later I’d go to her with the truth about my marriage, but not that day. That day I needed to stay with my anguish and my anger, holding on as if to keep from drowning.

School? You think she’ll be fine if she adjusts to preschool? Who are you people?

“Yeah, these kids are wonderful.” Barb spoke up from the bench where she combed her straight black hair, like locks of a prehistoric maiden. “I think Maggie is especially darling.” Barb wore her black bikini easily, showing off her enviable small breasts and a flat stomach. “She’s an intense, thoughtful little girl, Elaine.”

She’s a barbarian! There’s something wrong with Maggie! Can’t she see it?

“I wonder,” I said, slipping into the pool next to my daughter and giving Maggie a hard push sending her skimming through the water. She giggled. Maggie liked to test herself, liked to risk, as if she felt most alive when in danger. How could a toddler be so fearless? “Maggie’s got her own ideas about things. It’s her way or no way.” No one spoke. Finally I added, “Why doesn’t she talk to me?” speaking louder than I intended. “Something’s wrong with me that I can’t inspire this child to do more than demand food!” I thought of Maggie’s self-portrait she’d drawn in preschool, an outline of a head scrawled in the palest yellow, a face with no mouth. The picture had been transferred—by a conscientious teacher—on to a plastic plate that now hung on my kitchen wall, and the soundless image watched me with a baffling stare, like a face on an aboriginal cave painting.

“Maggie’s waiting for something to say,” Barb said. “I’ve heard of kids who don’t talk until five or six and then speak in complete sentences.” She pushed her wonderful hair back into an elastic band and spread a towel on the deck.

I considered pushing Barb’s slim body into the pool. Damn them all. Barb’s too naïve for words; Patty’s in total denial; Ingrid thinks preschool can save the world. I leaned back in my chair, adjusted my glasses again, and wished for a vanilla milkshake.

After ten silent minutes, I lifted Maggie out of the water, dried her with a striped towel, and she walked away from me, her arms held out from her sides by the florescent orange floaties. Who is this independent child? Has she the genes of some warrior tribe? Some street gang? I ran my fingers through my Joan Baez hair to rid myself of nasty thoughts. Daisy regarded me with her usual worried look, her spaniel soul aware of my discontent.

In time, the sun cast long shadows of late afternoon, and the three bikinied mothers called to their children, “Five more minutes!” gathering their towels and totes. When they started their journey down the driveway to their cars, they looked like sleek princesses of a naked tribe trailed by their primitive children. Soon there’d be nothing left but dark footprints.

Patty stopped on her way and stooped to poke at the dirt-strip on the edge of the asphalt. She called to me, “I’ll bring you some pansies next week. You need something here.”

I didn’t want pansies. I wanted Maggie to talk. I wanted Maggie to progress like the other children. I wanted Maggie to play without hitting. I wanted my daughter to validate my mothering and make me happy.

I trudged up the stairs and into my empty house, Maggie trailing behind me. Inside, she put her wet bottom on the seat of her Big-Wheel—a toy cycle parked in the middle of the family room—and drove it into the furniture while I went to my bedroom to change clothes.

* * *

Patty planted the pansies and they flourished. Within the year, red bougainvillea draped the fence, and pink and white impatiens enhanced the flower pots around the pool. Time altered more than the look of things, though, as I watched Maggie master the pool-slide, as predicted, and heard her speak when she felt like it. She defied and fought, hating school, but anyone could see she didn’t have fetal alcohol syndrome. Every crisis shook my world, but we survived together and her provocations forced me to act. She taught me to dive, you could say, to find the resources I needed.

Eventually, like a mermaid emerging from the water to seek the sunlight, I moved out of my despair. I can’t report that I started singing like Joan Baez, but I can say I spoke truthful words and heard them. After cutting my long hair and exchanging the dark glasses of a sunbather for the clarity of bifocals, I divorced my husband and took the children with me to make a life in a small house across the street from a church. We had few flowers, and no pools, but we did have a healthy avocado tree and we ate the green fruit year-round.

© 2011 Elaine Greensmith Jordan

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Meshed chain of crosses gyves your throat

patent leather butterfly.  Just what farrago


do you fancy yourself moving along the frozen indigo

lake of this asphalt

stage?  Tripping, genuflecting:


what am I to do with you?  Turn of century

limbs compose

a physical elegy of body.  Pebble


nipples beneath threadbare T.

Black crown

of hair; black chipped

nail polish—gothic, macabre


darling, black & violet islands freckle

your thighs.  Your tiny

ribs a pigeon coop.

Sugar-coated berried lips;

suede-veined, you waltz

upon a pin top.  The speeding—

is not the curtains


closing but the theatre

of the mind burning down.

Streetlamps halo your staggering.  I usher


you against my thrift store trench coat.  Your ballet:

now an opera

of extraordinary angst, exaggerated drama.


You are all applause, wingstorm, mascara

leaking cheeks,

roses & lilacs; stems

at your feet; you, gagging


on your own glossolalic encore…more, more, more…

The excruciating whites of your eyes: stars;


falling stars & the starburst




© 2011 Flower Conroy

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Convincing My Father

Because you are 60,

because you have built your self a beautiful life on hard work,

because you never expected anything less,

because you are a brilliant doctor,

because you have so much riding on it,

because you don’t actually have any black friends,

because you’re so much like your own father,

because you never wanted to be like him,

because you are so sure of your self,

because you get stage fright sometimes,

because your lips have grown thin,

because you break my heart and don’t know it,

because you asked for this poem,

there are things I will never be able to convince you of.

© 2011 Emily Kagan Trenchard

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An Impossible Plan

The deserted farmhouse had been home to a family once, witness to their joys and sorrows, meals and squabbles. All had a place within the walls of this home.

The walls were bare now, some riddled with holes from the battle that the opposing armies had waged through the property a few months before. The family had scattered most likely, taken their treasured belongings and fled, planning perhaps to return someday.


When the war was over.

Today, the men that gathered here had little purpose beyond an order to appear and the insistence of commanding officers or in one case military escort. A table, cobbled together from remnant boards and shored up with bricks at its feet, sat in the middle of the near barren space. Chairs, some little more than a bucket upended and left on the floor, were spattered about the room.

This was not a place of comfort or hospitality. It would, however, become a war room over the next few hours, nothing grand in stature or decoration, but grand in purpose.




Looking at the orders in his hand Captain Healy felt the press of both his duty and the victory he longed for sitting heavily on his shoulders. The plan was merely a spark of innovation and a spark, as he knew first hand, could start a fire that might consume him as well as light the way.

He was the first to enter the room, take his bearings of the random spill of furniture, and set his will to see the matter through.  A soft rap of sound on one of the inner doors caught his attention, turned him toward the immediate future, the task at hand. “Enter.”

The door swung open, held in place by some nameless private that Healy had never bothered to ask for his name. Three men entered the room, uneasy by the looks of their expressions, and unsure of their purpose they assembled. No one indicated that they take a chair but it seemed ‘expected’ and fulfilling that expectation had been ingrained into their lives. Each picked a chair and left one unclaimed, the head of the table was his.

“Take a seat, gentlemen.”

The request startled one of the men. He had expected an order from the Captain as any subordinate soldier would. He was the last to lower himself into his seat.

He was also the first man that the Captain addressed. “Lieutenant Morris, you made good time from the coast. I am sorry that you had to leave your work.”

Grey nodded, a stiff movement that gave away little of his true feelings. “There are those who can continue my work before I return. We can’t afford to lose time in any event.”

There was a subtle rebuke in his words, but Healy wasn’t looking for a confrontation and so he ignored it. “Lieutenant Morris is part of our submarine corps. He and his men are making vast improvements in our fleet, hoping to punch an irrevocable hole in the Union Navy.”

The other men murmured in agreement, the hopeful sentiment was one they shared.

“And you, Donnelly.” The Captain acknowledged the man to his left, quiet in manner and pale in color. “Your specialty is ordinance.”

“And I didn’t want to have anything to do with the military, but here I am.” Burke’s gruff interjection was not a shock to Healy, but the other two showed their surprise openly.

“You have skills that will be pertinent to this conversation, Mr. Burke.” Healy offered a hospitable smile, or as close as he could approximate one. “Your connection to this group will be revealed in due course.”

“I don’t see how we have much of anything for the lot of us to talk about together.” He leaned back in his chair. “I have other duties to perform.”  With that he began to rise from his chair.

“You have a duty here, Burke.” The captain’s tone cut into atmosphere of the room, stilling Burke’s actions. “I’ll thank you to have a seat so that we may begin.” Looking about the table, Healy saw the expectant and curious looks of the assembled group. It was, he agreed, an odd assemblage, but it was the only configuration that he could imagine that could make this feat possible. “We’re looking to create a warship. The likes of which will stagger the Union in their tracks.”

“Ship?”  Morris’s shock sputtered from his lips. “The war for superiority is on the ground, Captain. What good is another ship when we’ve already bested the Union at sea numerous times? At this juncture, it is merely a matter of out-producing them; putting boats out to sea and bringing down the Union fleet.”

The captain listened to the words and gave them their due, but neither his expression nor his resolve changed. He had expected a good deal of complications and was prepared to overcome them. “The Army has the battle well in hand and the ship that we’ve been tasked to build is one meant to ride the air, not the sea.”

The room was stunned into utter silence; the captain’s worn boots the only sound as he stepped to a side board and retrieved a large sheet of paper and a pencil sharpened just for the occasion. Smoothing the paper out on the table, he felt the scars of the old wood through the sheet and removed any remnants of dust from the surface. Satisfied that the canvas he used was suitable for his purpose he began to draw a round shape, a bit longer in height than a circle but his repeated tracings blurred the image somewhat. “The body of the ship will be light, held aloft with hydrogen gas in the same manner as a balloon.”

That had Burke’s attention and his derision. “Ride the air, hmm?” He looked at the other men at the table in turn. “We’re tethered to a base,” he explained, “we can be towed by train, wagon or barge, but it won’t fly. Not the way I think you’re meaning.”

Healy barely acknowledged the argument, addressing it only with a pointed look. His hand outlined the round body and added gored panels running from top to bottom. “We’d fill it with tankers that we’ve captured from the Union. They will provide a reliable source of gas and travel with the ship; a dock, but one that we could mobilize.”

Donnelly shook his head. “How does that answer Mr. Burke’s challenge? The restriction of a balloon stems from the fact that it needs a connection to the ground, a pull to move it along and give it direction. There is little use for such a craft in active war.”

“Exactly.” The Captain allowed himself a moment to gather his thoughts, softening the deeply etched lines about the corners of his eyes. “That is part of the problem.”

Morris ventured a query. “Then you’ve an idea to sort it out… to make it move from one place to another on its own?”  He sounded more hopeful than his expression alluded. “Forgive me, but that sounds like quite a flight of the imagination, Captain.”

Burke wasn’t about to make it easy. “Have a few trained pigeons up your sleeve, Captain?” He sat back in his chair, one booted foot sliding out a bit and under the table. “Can’t see how you’d make it work otherwise.” He looked about, waiting for someone to agree with him, to understand his meaning. “Up in the air you’ve got the wind buffeting the balloon around, not much you can use up there to steer.”

Captain Healy turned his sanguine gaze on another man at the table. “That’s where you come in, Morris.” Using his pencil he drew a shape beside the balloon. One that was easily recognizable to the sailor.  “Moving through the water is harder than moving through the air,” he drew a hasty sketch at the back,” blades cut through the water, propelling the ship through it. Wouldn’t the same concept work in the sky… rudders and-”

“A submarine in the air?” Burke banged his fist on the table top before him. “It’s not the same thing.” He leaned forward with a measuring gaze on the captain. “The weight alone would drag it down! You’ve brought us here on some fool’s errand, Captain, I’m done.” Folding his arms across his chest he stared at the wall, his ruddy complexion darkening. “Stuff and nonsense.”

Perhaps it was a vague expression on Morris’s face or the silent working of his lips that gave Healy some measure of hope. When Morris finally spoke it was as if he was caught in a daydream. “Wind has a current, like the ocean. The submarine must stay afloat even in the midst of water, but a balloon-” He looked to Burke for assistance and received a grudging response.

“Stays aloft with lift. Lighter than air is the way we keep it up above the trees.” He shifted in his chair uneasy at how quickly he was drawn back in. “I doubt you could make one big enough to support the weight of rudders of any kind.”

“Not size then,” the Captain conceded, “perhaps number? Placement? A single alteration or-”

“Or a number of changes along different disciplines.” Morris shook his head desolately, his slim frame wavering. “How much time would it take? How much time would we have?”

“And what good would it do?” argued Burke. “We’d move faster, venture farther, but fat lot that would do for us now. Keeping an eye on the Union Blue won’t be enough.”

Donnelly lifted his hand and caught the Captain’s attention. “I don’t think we’ve been shown the whole picture. Or at least I believe I am about to enter into it.”

The captain’s quiet acknowledgement continued into the explanation. “The lift of the balloon, the maneuverability of the submarine and lastly,” he turned to Donnelly, “perhaps you will be so kind as to bring in our acquisition.”

Rising from his chair, the man brushed at the ever-present dust discoloring his dark coat. He made his way around the table and opened the door. Two soldiers took the opportunity to enter the breach carrying in a small structure, the top of which was shrouded with an oilcloth. They set the object down beside Donnelly and exited without a word.  Lifting the corner of the cloth he let it fall to the floor at his feet.

“What is that?” Morris half stood from his chair and stared at the complicated mass of metal perched on the wooden stand.

Donnelly touched the cool iron of the barrel, his hand gentle, and the hushed tone of his voice reverent. “I’m sure you’ve heard of the ‘coffee mill’ guns that the boys of Pennsylvania have used on our troops.  This gun was recently brought to our attention by a Dr. Gatling from North Carolina.”

Indicating the barrel of the weapon, Donnelly pointed out that it had six barrels that “rotate and fire a continuous spray of bullets operated by a single gunner.“

Burke turned up his nose at the mention. “Heard he offered it to the Union as well.”

“Yes,” Captain Healy accepted the truth of the statement, “he admitted as much, but that, as he says, is the prerogative of a businessmen.”

“He’s a Carolina boy,” Grey took up the argument, “he should be loyal.”

Holding up his hands in surrender, Donnelly ventured forward with a thought. “However it came to be, we have acquired a dozen of the guns and I believe Captain Healy has asked me here because he’d like to add these to this ‘ship’ of his.”

Healy nodded his assent. “You have me dead to rights on that score, Donnelly.”

Morris leaned over the diagram on the table. “It’s crazy, what you have in mind here.” His fingers traced the pencil lines, smudging a bit here and there. “Even if we could find a way to put something like this up in the air,” he sighed, a long suffering exhale of air from his lips, “adding a gun… is pure madness!”

Burke, who they would learn could always be counted on for a prediction of dire consequences, added in his own assessment. “Madness, truly. This isn’t as simple as forge-welding something together. There’s gas involved and ordinance.” His laughter shook his shoulders and his middle but the darkness of his narrowed gaze was imperious. “A spark could send the whole thing up in flames! Then the Union would make a mockery of our innovation.”

“Not to mention,” Grey continued the thought, “if the Union were to bring it down, capture it for their own use.”

The three began to argue at once, at times with each other and then against as they began to out-shout opposing viewpoints with their questions and declarations. These men, all three intelligent and well educated in regards to their own specialties seemed to find no shortage of opinions about the proposal.

The pencil, given over by the Captain during the ensuing debate, passed from hand to hand to hand as they scratched out possible configurations and then crossed them out in turn.

Healy could only stand back and watch in amazement at the wild conjectures of their imaginations and the demanding press of their viewpoints on the subject at hand. He thought, given the obvious discord surrounding the table, that they would never see eye-to-eye on the project.

He was wrong.

It was Donnelly that finally cut through the ragged cacophony of noise with his pronouncement. “We all agree.” He looked at the Captain, his gaze steady even as his hands shook slightly with nerves. “It’s impossible, but we’d all like to try.”



© 2011 Ray Dean


Filed under Fiction

Traveling with my Mother

My mother planned our vacations and because she was not quite normal, neither were our vacations. While I dreamt of cheesy Disney cruises and relaxing all-inclusives, sipping virgin daiquiris at the pool bar like my vacationing teenage peers, part of my mother’s mid-life crisis meant an insatiable desire to shrug off our tourist identities and become one with our Central American neighbors. My mother the psychologist taught us early that it was impossible to enjoy a country without getting into the minds of the people who lived there. To understand and communicate with the people of these countries, the first step was to speak the language.

My little sister, my mother, and I had all learned Spanish in the classroom and my sister and I liked to keep it there. In the classroom, safe behind desks, among kids who chewed gum like cud. Balancing on the cliff of womanhood, we both had enough things to obsess about in our own language without worrying about our inability to roll our r’s. We felt every mispronunciation like a pimple, humiliation oozing from our teenage pores. My mother, on the other hand, had been swept off her feet by Zoloft a few years earlier and had lost the chemical compounds for shame in the process. On previous vacations, she had made it her unofficial job to practice her pitiful español on anyone who stood still long enough to feel obligated to listen. This usually meant hotel maids, waiters, cab drivers, gardeners, etc. Every trip had its own cast of characters, roped into our lives by my mother. She poked and prodded her characters, the bored, white lady who never tired of playing with dolls.

Don’t get me wrong. My mother speaks Spanish. She knows the difference between the preterite and imperfect, the masculine and feminine, and her phrase bank extends far past the necessary hotel “la cuenta, por favor”. However, despite a lifetime of classes and a college semester in Spain, she somehow manages to be nearly incomprehensible and mind-numbingly embarrassing whenever she speaks. She sounds like she learned Spanish from a Southern rodeo clown drunk on tequila. I think it was her eagerness that was the most painful to watch, the bug-eyed, craned-neck exuberance with which she spoke and how she was completely unaware of the sniggers waiting around the corner, just out of earshot. Having shriveled my dignity to the size of a pinhead on previous vacations, the next logical step was, of course, to stay with a family in Nicaragua and attend Spanish language school for six hours every day. In other words, drunk Southern rodeo clown all day every day for two weeks.

My mother was most excited to meet our host family, to show off her beautiful daughters and to bond with our madre and her hijos, to find people who appreciated (read: were paid to appreciate) the way she massacred her way through the Spanish language. It was going to be the ultimate adventure: my mother and her two girls, the three señoritas. When we arrived at the house, feeling sweaty and extremely American, hauling our rolling suitcases across the dirt street, we realized that we were not the only ones moving in. There was a van out front, with a life slowly being unpacked: mattresses, picture frames, cans of condensed milk, a child’s tricycle. My mother seemed oblivious to the moving crew, while I squeezed my sister’s hand as we both noticed the woman in black watching us as our host mother, Raquel, welcomed us inside. Her eyes darted between the three of us, the woman in the corner, and the steady stream of furniture weaving through the house.

“Bienvenidos,” she said. It looked like there were tiny men pulling the corners of her mouth into a smile. My mother motioned to the family rubble exploding silently around us. “Que es esto?” The woman in the corner let a sob escape and quickly covered her mouth as if keep the army of wails inside of her from leaving their loved ones and joining the front line. She left the room and Raquel explained in Spanish, quickly and without emotion.

The woman is my sister her husband died two days ago hit by a car the funeral was yesterday he earned the money so she and her family had to sell their house and move out she has a teenage daughter and a little boy they won’t disturb you the three of them will be living in one room you still have two rooms just like you reserved welcome to Nicaragua here are the towels.

For once, my mother had nothing to say. She looked old all of a sudden, the eagerness bleeding out of her face. Here we were, with fat suitcases and Spanish dictionaries, pencils sharpened, on the heels of a funeral procession. Raquel was as kind as she could be but we crowded every room. We were like three thick tongues, thrashing around in a mouth too small to fit us. Mealtime, which was when we were supposed to be swapping stories and collecting new words, was humid with silence. Our stay had all the makings of a great travel story. We swam in our own sweat, beneath mosquito nets. There were chickens shitting everywhere. Nine of us shared one bathroom. We ate plantains in as many forms as Forrest Gump could cook shrimp. But for evert detail we added to our emails (“The kitchen is outside!” “We eat our eggs straight from the chicken!”), there were a few we left out. Like the way the teenage girl stared at us from across the table, daring us to smile when she and her family were hit by the cold reality of their loss every time they opened their eyes in the morning. Or the way the little boy asked when his father would come back from the store with his Superman action figure and their perrito. We soon realized that this was not our adventure anymore. This was their lives, and we were more than tourists. We were intruders. We discussed our next step as a family, weighing the options on our way to and from the language school. If we stayed, that meant money, money that they needed. But if we left, that meant room, or what they needed even more, space. My mother eventually decided that it wouldn’t be fair to either of our families if we stayed.

While we were waiting at the front door to leave, my mother looked tired. I wanted to tie her loose shoelace and kiss her eyelids and pad her heart with something thicker than mud. Her eyes were deep as secrets and I could see the fire slapping at her bones. I realized that I had absentmindedly reached for her hand, my arm slung around my sister’s shoulder. I looked back and saw the teenage girl. Her eyes were not angry and threatening, staring unblinkingly to the back of my skull. She was looking at our hands, clasped and wet with each other’s sweat, and the easy way my sister leaned her head against my shoulder. Mi familia. Solid. Whole. Unbroken. As we left, my mother spoke for the three of us. “Adios, y lo siento,” she said. I don’t remember harsh shards of syllables, words like jagged glass. Her voice was warm and viscous, flowing into the cracks in their home like glue. My mother understood a language I had not yet mastered and she spoke it with a perfect accent.

© 2011 Emma Shakarshy

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Filed under Nonfiction