The Sea in Her Ear
By Opal Palmer Adisa
She was drowning, and doing everything she knew she shouldn’t.
She opened her mouth and tried to swallow the sea.
Its ceaseless motion rocked her body; its voice whistled and echoed all around her. Splashing and crashing, its wetness clung to her like weighted cement that attempted to pull her down. The sea had gotten hold of her and was not ready to let her loose.
She opened her mouth to shout for help and gulped more water, then thrashed about frantically, her hands flailing like slender branches forced to dance under heavy winds. She was drowning and knew her survival depended on her relaxing and allowing the buoyance and heavy saltiness of the sea to keep her afloat.
Something about the neediness of the ocean scared her, the possessive way the water draped her legs, the intimate fishy smell that engulfed her nostrils, the roar of the waves locked in the chamber of her ears, the vast emptiness of the sea, slick like oil yet colorless, invisible. God’s Child knew only a fool would try to save someone bent on drowning herself, and she was both fool and self. She knew she needed to conserve her energy, but her heart was another current in the ocean gravitating towards other channels of currents so Yemaja, the great goddess of the ocean, dragged her down and rolled her like a barrel plummeting down a steep hill.
With arms raised above her head and body stiff and straight as an arrow, she flicked her feet and ejected from the water like a cannon. Mouth wide open she gulped for air as her ears thundered. Immediately, she sprang up in bed, spat out seawater and shook her head furiously to dislodge the water somersaulting in her ear. When that didn’t work she opened her mouth wide and yawned repeatedly. She heard Yemaja’s spluttering laughter and her dismissive remark, “Not ready for you yet, but don’t tarry too long.” Then Yemaja dove into the water like lightning, descending to the deep sandy bottom, lost among the seaweed and corals.
The bed was dry. Her skin was gritty as if she’d spent the entire day at the beach, dipping and then drying off under the sun. She was in her room at her house, not pulled under by a current. No prevailing black ocean awaited her. Shaking her head, fully awake, she scanned the room, then cursed. Rass! What the hell you want with me? She could hear the cawing of the sea, six blocks away; and without seeing the ocean, she could tell that it was flat and shimmering as wet glass. One could be fooled into believing it was harmless, but she, God’s Child, knew better.
She knew she had to go. Was it still night? Rolling out of bed, she crawled on her knees to the window, through which she peered, searching the star-filled sky. It was early morning, probably between one and two o’clock. She kept kneeling, even though the tiled floor sent shooting pains through her left knee where she had fallen when the man cursed her. He had set his dog on her as she ran, tripping over a naseberry tree stump, and then the dog had licked her face, and her knee was covered with blood which the dog licked instead of biting, while the man, the owner, stood there watching them before turning away with a contemptuous wave of his hand, saying, “You both deserve each other, but leave me naseberry alone.”
Now she picked up the naseberry from the windowsill, the last that she had taken, and bit into it as she used her right hand to steady herself, turning from the window, dismissing the lazy moon at her back.
The smooth sweetness of the gummy fruit watered her mouth. She chewed slowly, prolonging the pleasure of the fruit and delaying going where she knew she had to go. Hearing the urgent call from Yemaja, she shouted a response, A coming. Water and fish not going nowhere. The puppy that she has stolen, and who now slept by her door, raised its head, its ears immediately alert. Bending down, she picked up the puppy that she named Dream Undone. Hush, she said, caressing his back, is not you a shouting at, is that damn woman in the ocean who drown me awake. Come we go see what she want. Naked as at birth, she pulled her door shut, and with Dream Undone’s front legs over her right shoulder, she ambled down the road, a liquid sound guiding her steps.
Damp sand gripped her toes and squished under her soles, and immediately Dream Undone began to squirm. You too nasty, she said patting his back. Almost a week now you don’t have a sea bath, you well overdue. You can’t let me go to that cantankerous old woman by meself. She held him firmly as the waves ebbed at her feet. The water chilled her, making her tremble as it rose to her knees. Dream Undone yelped softly, trying to climb on her head. You betta behave or me go fling you in mek de fish eat you, she whispered to the dog, his body wound like a scarf around her neck. The water swelled above her waist, and the chorus of the ocean called to her in soft melodious rhythms.
She knew she had to take the plunge but hesitated, scanning the water, till she lost her balance and fell, splayed. Dream Undone escaped her grasp and she saw him swimming frantically away from her towards the shore, and she was listening now. Was ready to hear what Yemaja wanted to say to her. Closing her eyes, she allowed the currents to embrace her, taking her under into their chambers.
Her body relaxed into the arms of the ocean, and God’s Child felt herself floating like a plastic Buddha, bubbles like diamonds circling her face.
On La Concha Beach
By Maurice Cashell
He was never going to be so much the centre of attention as he was on that Saturday morning.
Even as the boat bearing him to the shore was still some distance away people were running backwards and forwards, excitedly, nervously, people in various uniforms, important, serious, with mobile communications that chattered ceaselessly. An area to receive him was prepared and police with dogs forced back the hundreds already gathered to gawk. They responded slowly but without the sullenness normally shown to the police in this part of the Basque region, because this man had earned almost total attention and respect.
Almost total. Mothers ran after wandering children or peered nervously as their view of the playground was becoming obstructed. Groups of visitors had oriented their sun-loungers to face the southern sun and lay with their backs to the shore, throwing only an occasional glance in his direction. The ferret-faced boy who sold bocadillos at inflated prices never took his eye off his customer base.
The man was alone. I’ve been in other situations where friends and family are involved and they usually get in the way. This man’s aloneness added to the intensity of the occasion.
Surrounded by officials and helpers, some whispering confidences or reassurances in his ears, he was borne in a throng that flowed by me like a torrent. Throughout his whole countenance there reigned a stony rigidity, as if taking everything in, or nothing in. From there to a vehicle that, preceded by police outriders with blue lights, sped off in a hysteria of alarms.
On Monday morning the event garnered no more than one four-inch column in El Diario Vasco. His name was Luis Ortega and, according to the District Medical Officer, he was already dead when his body was taken from the water.
The phone rang. Mama picked it up. Three minutes after ‘hello’ she was still listening.
“Thank you,” she finally said.
She then went to her bedroom and came out shortly wearing her fur coat.
“Come on, we have to go mandicate your brother at the morgue.”
“Mandicate? What does that mean?” I asked as Ben and I followed her to the car.
She gave me the money.
“Tell him to give you a quarter of a kilogramme.”
I took the money from her hand and her long pinkie finger nail scratched my thumb. It always did, every time I took something from her hand. I believed and still believe that it has a life of its own, separate from mama’s.
Money in hand I went into the morgue and the man with the apron and the chef’s hat was standing over a grill. There were several grills. Each had a name tag. Meat, liver, intestines, male privates, female breasts and other organs were roasting and on the side of all the grills was a bowl and a tiny brush, like a paint brush.
Lucky for me the man was standing at the grill whose tag read, Name of Deceased: Mwachaku Alonso. That was my brother. I gave the man the Kshs 500 note.
“Mama said to get a quarter of a kilogramme,” I told him.
He took the money.
“Should I slice it into pieces?”
“I guess you should,” I said.
He dipped the brush into the bowl, brushed the quarter of a kilogramme with the liquid and sliced it into pieces with a knife. After placing it on a platter and covering it with a stainless steel clinical bowl, he licked the grease from his fingers and handed the ‘corpse’ to me.
“Here you go. My condolences to your family.”
Mama and Ben were eager to see the contents.
She complained as usual. “Ah, you’ve been conned. These pieces are not as chunky as they should be. Your brother was a fleshy man.”
Ben said nothing. Instead he picked a piece and munched it. I thought that was unnatural, one hundred percent abnormal. I looked at mama and she seemed okay with it. She even took a piece of Alonso, slipped it into her mouth and swallowed it without chewing.
“Go on, eat up!” She yelled at me.
“I hope your father and his mistress get here before we are done.”
Ben was eating Alonso like he would eat grilled chicken. Licking his lips and pausing to pick the best pieces.
I picked a piece, ate it, and within two minutes saliva welled up in my mouth. Salty saliva. Tears struggled out of my eyes. My throat hurt like hell; it usually does when I am about to vomit. Alonso came out, painfully, together with other yucky things.
Mother was furious.
“You do know that there is no more land left for burying the dead, don’t you?”
“Yes mama, but … ”
“Eat up! At least you get to keep a bit of your brother in you before the bar and restaurant people come to make their bids.”
Take two did not work either. This time I did not swallow the meat. My hands chucked it from my mouth. Mama pulled my ears and watched my mouth curve into a yell and deflate into muffled sobs.
They ate the rest of the quarter of a kilogramme, returned the platter and bowl and we went back home. Mama’s fur coat was catching a cold and she complained.
The eruption of a collective sigh acts as starter gun. It rings out before suburban streets are submerged. Before village greens are criss-crossed and overground carriages—their doors swallowing bones and all—are filled to saturation. Before the carriages catch and trap behind push-button doors. Before they close, until spilling their contents onto platforms at Liverpool Street or Paddington or Waterloo or Moorgate or Marylebone or Paddington.
By 8am, Canary Wharf teems and bubbles. The rails at Clapham Junction, once so naked and exposed, have all but disappeared under metric tons of carriage. Zone Two hammers snooze buttons before springing a reluctant leak of 9am starters that drip from beds and soak half-asleep into the ground. Only to be sputtered back out again at quarter-to onto black tar streets that soon run pitch.
Kerbs are sloshed up. Steps sloshed down. Cement and stone, ridden hard. Staircases are, with much insistence, step-by-step ascended. Glass elevators (so silent in their twilight fluorescence) are now daylit and square-inch by square-inch, filled. Buildings hat-black to the brim.
9am—The doors of a thousand foyers shudder shut until lunchtime. And come lunchtime any stragglers are sucked up, nails dragging, with a slurp, come two.
It’s not until the best of the daylight is catapulted halfway around the Earth, in fact, that the chain is mercifully given a convulsive yank. That the floor falls away and the contents of the buildings are flushed, yawning and damp, onto the plains, come six.
It’s all such serious business.
Yet on this winter morning, something remarkably silly is happening. Something a tad improper. Immature. Imprudent. Insensible. Inproductive. Imnecessary. Umefficent. Unorthodox.
Something—as the alarmed would attest—rather alarming.
On this strange day the black mass that usually flows with such caffeinated efficiency laps stagnantly against a rough-hewn island of grey pavement off a ninety-degree bearing from Bishopsgate. Bounded on all sides and spanning eight-or-so metres at its widest, the shore tentatively shifts and surges with the various whims and obligations of the tide. A tide which now (more-or-less stationary) can be seen for what it is. A colossal, respirating mass of white shirts, grey ties and black jackets. The all-black everything hanging harsh against the anemic white faces. Each and every one a skin-pore-clear camera-flash, frozen in the crisp air of a December morning.
Holding their all, amidst them, a middle-aged man oscillates. He leaps to and fro. He throws himself, occasionally, into a series of ersatz pirouettes with arms formed in a trite triangle, scalene, above his head. Other than this he covers his paved stage with bare, quick, unsubtle feet, in an attempt at what newspapers would later call dancing.
But, understandably, no one is watching with consideration for the aesthetic. The assembled eye was initially caught, and remains so, by the exposed skin. Kissed brown from head to waist, knees to feet. A milky white from waist to knees. You could pour that on your cereal, an eyewitness would later report. Another bespectacled witness will mistakenly swear the man was wearing a rather scanty pair of white shorts. An easy mistake to make, were it not for—as one social commentator commentated—the 70s porn-fuzz.
It’s nippy out as well. The centrifugal afterglow of intermittent spinning failing, resolutely, to throw out certain extremities quite as far as he would like.
And just scan across these higher-achievers. These ambitious, driven, thoroughly proper, thoroughly stimulated, engines of society. These best of the throbbing best. These bright and shiny Russell Group hons-toters. These Oxbridge fortunates and laureates. These movers. These shakers. These decision makers. Executives. Heads. Assistants and Managers and Associates. Each one, only a cough or two away from a given other, in a game of Six Degrees of Job Designation.
They gawp, is all, as the sun rises on a day holding nothing more impossible than infinity, in terms of opportunity and outcome. As it rises, for them, on the full, effervescent moon of a man some of the gathered can’t help but recognise. Each and every riveted one of them, themselves, now driven to acts of irregularity. People, prone to silent scowling on their commute, today turning previously heavy heads—now helium filled—to their neighbours. Engaging strangers in an exchange of exclamations. Sharing various facial expressions of either bemusement or amusement, with similarly bemused and/or amused people who could well be their friends, but aren’t. Quick one-two’s of bared teeth thrown and correctly construed as smiles—little “I can’t believe this” smiles—made in response to any prolonged eye contact.
But all of this is fleeting. And their numerous attentions soon return to a man regarded by many as one of the best of them.
And of course, as one, they stare.
They stare, as the pearlescent whites of their inconceivably complex eyes are steadily, and hungrily, consumed. Their bodies too—fading away, until these people form nothing more than a monochrome polka-panel of impenetrable, quite simple, pupils. Each dilated to its bleeding black edge.
And as their cheers slip down an indiscernible gradient, to jeers …
And as their faces pucker and sour …
And as their gestures broaden, and their smiles, once so fluid, harden to solid smirks …
And as they hold phones to their faces, pressing eyes and noses and nostrils, white-raw, to the glass …
And even as the word fuck sends smoke twirling high and pretty into the morning air …
Be sure to make no mistake.
Because, as this naked man grabs an unfortunate, clothed, woman and holds her in what could be called an embrace. This is, without exception, the highlight of their day.
Coming To a Van Near You
By Paul Gray
Sebastian Guano (not his real name) gave his bowtie a final neurotic twiddle, and smoothed back his ample, if greying, locks with both slim-fingered hands. Rising to mouth-level before him only the greasy mike on its stand separated him from the filthy glass wall through which he could just about view the lone technician (tattooed oaf!) faffing about in his attempts to ‘set up’. God, Sebastian thought, hands on hips: what a dump! Not at all what he’d expected. He rather doubted that the other voice-over artistes—the Talking-Book mob—would have to put up with such bog-standard surroundings. Why, it was a mere booth! And none too clean either, judging by those cobwebs. And that awful stink of oil … !
And yet. It didn’t matter. For this was his break, the opportunity by which his talents would at last be conveyed beyond the limited, stifled circuit of his acquaintance to the wider world beyond. And about time, too. Fourteen years he’d had of it. Fourteen years, after graduating from the Frinton School of Drama, of slogging about in weekly rep, declaiming to hordes of unappreciative pigs who probably thought Hamlet was a bacon sandwich. God, it had been hell—hell! But now had come his chance to break away from all that and receive the due his gifts merited. True, he had only one line to speak—but WHAT a line: declamatory, incisive, self-explanatory, emotive, power-packed! It had everything if delivered the right way: HIS way, though what, exactly, that way was to be he did not quite know. But he would find it. Had he not sat up every night this past week struggling to bring forth the intrinsic dynamic possibilities that he sensed lay locked within these deceptively simple syllables? It had been hell—hell, but he was ready now. If necessary, he would tear the damn line to pieces in his quest for integrity. There would be blood, sweat! There would be—
“Okay, mate, when yer ready.”
The scruffy engineer, earphones up about his ears now, gave Sebastian the nod. (‘Mate’! God … ) Sebastian sniffed, cleared his throat, and delivered his ‘Lion’s Roar’, specially nicked from Peter O’Toole for the occasion. Nothing like it for clearing the pipes.
“You all right, mate?” queried the engineer.
“Is the tape … running?” enquired Sebastian. Disdaining his own greasy earphones, he raised one arm for dramatic effect and stepped forward. No prompt. No prompt needed for what he had taken so vitally to heart.
“Stand well clear— this vehicle IS reverSING!” he thundered, and staggered back, already shaking his head. Not right. Not right!
“Nice one, mate. Fanks a lot—”
“I’d like to do it again,” snapped Sebastian. “The emphasis … all wrong. Wrong, do you hear?!”
An incredulous pause ensued. Then:
Once more the great thespian lunged for the mike.
“Stand well CLEAR—THIS vehicle IS REversing!” he screamed. “No! NO!”
“Thass all right, that,” said the engineer. “Fanks very—”
“Again! I say again! The projection … something … not right … ”
“Look,” sighed the engineer, “It’s only an ’aulage firm, not the bleedin’ Old Vic …”
“Just one more,” gasped Sebastian, his temples throbbing. “Just one—I swear it!”
“Look.” It was the engineer, in kindly tones. “If you just dropped the silly voice …”
Sebastian threw him a baleful glare. “Have you ever acted?” he hissed.
“Er … not really … ”
“Then how dare you tell me how to deliver a line!”
“It’s only an ’aulage firm!”
“Fack me … ”
Sebastian recalled those occasions when, on taking applause and mouthing apparent obsequies to the audience, he had been secretly muttering: “Pigs … pigs … ”
Yes, yes. Here was a great clue. Enmity. Hate. Hate the buggers.
“STAND WELL CLEAR—THIS VEHICLE IS REVERSING!!” he raged like Richard III. And then, all but sobbing: “Again!”
“Fack me … ”
Three hours and forty-one takes later, he nailed it.
Sebastian and his bemused agent had been hanging round the haulage firm all afternoon, waiting. At last there came, from around the corner, the sound of fast revving, followed by the tell-tale premonitory bleeping. Electrified, Sebastian rose and clutched his agent’s arm.
“Stand well clear—this vehicle is reVERsing!” declaimed the mechanical voice happily.
“That is MY voice!” said Sebastian smugly and stepped forth just in time for the reversing vehicle to hit him.
By Priya Dabak
Emmi braces herself and steps up to the podium. Absently tucks a dark lock of hair behind her ear. Eyes focussed down, a lopsided grin on her face, “Hi.” That’s original. A pause. The grin dissolves. She looks at the crowd. Catches a lady in a crisp pantsuit at the front table winking at her. Across the room, a young man gives her a thumbs up. And Emmi, with a trusting spurt of confidence, a confessor finally letting go, commences her rehearsed speech.
“Hello. I am honoured to be here today as a guest of the AnStrat Society. I applaud them for the work they have been doing all these years. I am new here, but just as passionate to the cause, if not more. Because, let’s face it, it has gone on for long enough. The hoax, the pretence. The truth needs to be … freed. I am here for justice. I’m here for my great-great-great-great, you get my point.” The formality of tone makes her uncomfortable. A nervous giggle bursts out. Her laugh is tinged with that loud Italian charm; the media will wax eloquent tomorrow. ” … great-great-great grandmother. I am here, because I discovered something about myself that changes … everything. And I don’t just mean my personal life, though there is that.” Stick to the script, Emmi.
“I am what you have been looking for, for ages. Proof. Alive and fighting. My name is Emmi, short for Emily Lanier Johnson. Good morning.” The middle name is just a test. Twinkles and flashes of recognition among the listeners. Wow, these people know their shit. Her face responds in spite of her, a naughty conspiring smile. It aims to be pretty. On her, it twists. The cameras scoop it up with exasperating precision. Tomorrow it will be in the papers. And unlike most of yesterday’s news, it will stay. Her favourite caption for that photo, her memoir will say, had been from The New Local—Beauty’s successive heir. In another century, Amelia Lanier would have appreciated the pun.
It all started with a rumour. A joking comment on fine ancestry at Emmi’s rehearsal dinner. Really, Mama? She was intrigued. Emmi, who was never passionate about anything, found an unlikely obsession. The wedding was pushed ahead. And a little further. Months of nothing but old letters and sleepovers at various libraries led to a strained relationship. Then a confrontation. On its heels followed the ruthless heartless break-up.
Emmi’s search only grew stronger. It was two years before the last piece of the puzzle fell in place. A signed letter. A thank you, from her to him. Poor Amelia, all alone. So, the discovery, when it came, was almost a let-down. Where do we go from here, Emmi? AnStrat was the suggestion of an old aunt. Indulge in your fantasies, everyone is allowed those, the aunt said, when Emmi visited her at the hospice. A polite thank-you was all Emmi could muster then.
But look! Today on stage, Emmi Johnson’s words have the audience rapt. “And now! We call ourselves Anti-Stratford! How she would have hated it! Who am I to speak of love? But the truth is nicer than one is led to imagine. He was lending her a voice.” There was a cheer, unexpected. Maybe you are crazy, Emmi, with your flights of fancy, but no more than these people.
“The trickiest part of any speech, my publicist says—yes, I had to get one of those—is the punchline. But I have just the right one.” Emmi knows that Mary-Anne, with her professional bun and sharp nose, will disapprove of any improvisation. But Emmi is right, what a line it will be. Fit to be a headline! “Here goes. This discovery like most great finds leads to more questions. And do you know what the most pressing one is? What on earth is the feminine of “Bard?”
In her memoir, years from now, Emmi will write—
Prologue. The night air rustles with secrets. Desire burns in her, like the sun. She watches him. Casting aside his doublet, rolling up his sleeves, that bumbling grace of a handsome drunkard. The young actor stumbles into her bed.
Cue playful laughter. “Thou, dear Sir, art intoxicated,” she chides him, as he buries his face in her midnight locks. ” … and thou, m’ lady, art intoxicating,” he replies. A well-worn game.
Later, she must ask. The performance? Wide dark eyes, voice hoarse with hope.
“’Twas marvellous. Such wond’rs thou maketh, thy audience stood entranc’d.” His sincerity brings a rushing red to Amelia’s grey cheek. Then cupping her chin in his hand, he tells her what they have named him. The Bard of Stratford. Boyish delight in his eyes, teasing.
She slaps his hand away, annoyed yet pleased. Ready with a retort. “O! What’s in a name?”
By Eve Merrick-Williams
It all began when my friend June got put up the duff by her skydiving boyfriend Jim.
They were the first couple to make the beast with two backs jumping out of a DC3 at 50,000 feet. I was falling alongside with the camera to record the event. It was only my second jump.
I’m glad to say that Jim wasn’t a stayer, though it seemed a bloody long time coming with the ground rushing up at 32 feet per sec. I decided after that that skydiving was not for me and I resolutely refused any more jumps—at least the skydiving kind.
I was having coffee with June when she broached the subject of me being her birthing partner. I’d never heard the word ‘doula’ before. But it seemed cool; all I had to do was attend antenatal classes with her, generally be supportive, and be there at the birth.
No problem. I thought I might rather enjoy it.
About eight months in, she dropped the bombshell. She and Jim wanted baby Jenny to be air-born! Well, I knew they were both a bit mad, but this was beyond. I started backing towards the door, muttering things like no way and you’re both freaking mad. Then June started crying, and saying she didn’t think her best and oldest friend would let her down like this.
Well, naturally, being a spineless jellyfish, I gave in. We made our preparations, and a friend at the flying club loaned his Cessna 421 Golden Eagle. It had room for six people including the pilot; so there was room for Jim, the midwife and me.
The plane was fueled and ready to go; the pilot on standby.
Well, 6am the phone rang and it was Jim … ‘Pink squadron scramble.’ June was waiting, looking like a whale in a pink nighty and parachute harness. (The parachute was a custom job with the straps rearranged to allow little Jenny free exit.)
The pains were coming pretty fast and June and I were sitting in the back of the Jeep panting like a pair of deranged setters on a hot day.
We came to a skidding halt next to the Cessna, its engines already revving. We bundled June into the cabin and followed, buckling our chutes as we went. ‘Tower, this is Bravo zero foxtrot clear for takeoff.’
‘Bravo zero foxtrot you are cleared for takeoff, runway two.’
With a roar of engines we shot along the runway accompanied by the piercing screams of June calling Jim a freaking horny son of a goat and threatening that she was going to do a Bobbitt on him if she survived.
The plan was simple: As soon as the top of little Jenny’s head showed we’d all bail out. Well, that was okay except that June got stuck in the door. Unfortunately I got pushed out first and was hanging onto the door while the others tried to extricate June who was screaming blue murder at this point and swearing like a pub full of sailors. Suddenly she pops out the door like a cork out of a champagne bottle.
I lose my grip and begin dropping like a stone. I get a perfect view of baby Jenny’s emergence into the world.
She evades the midwife and begins her first skydive sans parachute. Daddy tries to get into position but misjudges his speed and overshoots. Jenny’s dropping like a stone and screaming her little lungs out and falls right into my arms. With a sigh of relief I cut the cord, and pull the rip cord and baby Jenny is air-born.
The Phantom Lover
By Nels Hanson
The white stallion in sparkling bridle bursts from the trees, running through the grass, bearing a rider with a stripe of silver dollars heel to hip. His sombrero blows straight out with the horse’s mane and an ivory pistol grip flashes at his thigh above the star-wheel spur.
“Un momento, Rey Blanco [A moment, White King],” the horseman murmurs, lightly pulling at the rein.
They stop short at the crest of oaks and wild wheat, staring out across the strange valley filled with millions of electric lights, dimming the stars.
Summoned by the secret scent of dry breathing grasses and the resin of bay laurel from a hidden creek, remembered star jasmine and blooming four o’clock, the Flower of Peru—the perfume of a black-veiled woman wafts through the night, delaying the heart of the urgent rider.
He shivers with her sweetness and recalls a vanished April, an evening among pungent blossoms of lemon and orange, quick shining eyes and waist-length raven hair.
The yellow light touches softly at his belt and holster buckles, the brass cartridges asleep in his crossed bandoliers. Now he slips the cameo from his short jacket and holds it open to the rising August moon.
“Ah, Belle Solar [Ah, Lovely Sun] … Tu nombre lleva luz [Your name carries light]—como un ángel [like an angel]. Adelante [Advance],” he says, and Rey Blanco leaps forward, plunging down the hill of high oats, his raised head like the masthead of a Viking ship parting a silver sea.
“Rio de vida o rio de muerte, quien sabe, eh, Rey Blanco [River of life or river of death, who knows, eh, White King]?” the rider asks, and they descend toward the white ribbon of water.
Past the clinging branches of Manzanita and buckeye, through sycamore and cottonwood and tart-smelling willow, the horse enters the shimmering current, splashing up at moon-bright hooves.
The stream quickens in sudden waves as it joins the wider water tumbling toward the valley—one story meeting another—and the lone Joaquin Murrieta guides his brilliant horse to the near bank of the swift and icy Kings River.
Under the branches of madrone, ignoring the call of great-horned owl and the night heron’s cry—broad wings beating above the constant river—Joaquin turns sharply to the north out of the willows onto the grassland, to race the sun.
Intent as a charging cavalry captain, he spares no glance at the barn and ranch house, the corral of swirling horses, a palomino lifting its head, whinnying at the running snowy stallion.
“Una vez amor, una vez amor, una vez amor, una vez amor [Once love, once love, once love, once love].” Rey Blanco’s hooves beat against the asphalt, iron shoes striking fire.
Down the long hill to the main road, letting the sleeping pastures and farms sail away faster now, racing on the flat land, Joaquin urges, “Apúrese, Rey Blanco, apúrese [Hurry, White King, hurry]! Ah, Rey Blanco, si tuvieramos alas [Ah, White King, if only we had wings].”
Black scarf flying at his neck, Joaquin bolts through the nighttime-shuttered town he once would have robbed, beyond the hill of shining tombstones.
“Ahora solamente el guiño del ojo oscuro, Rey Blanco [Now just the wink of a dark eye, White King]!”
On his forehead Joaquin feels the sun, aimed through the notches of the Rockies, falling in amber shafts across Utah and Nevada, bathing the granite eastern flank of the Sierras in a lateral line, climbing the bare citadels and minarets toward the summit.
Closer now. “Apúrese, Rey Blanco!” Joaquin shouts as the sinking orange moon touches the Sierra Madre and the jagged Sierra Nevada Mountains sharpen against the brightening sky.
At a wall of dark walnuts Joaquin nods to the right and Rey Blanco veers like a white arrow, leaving the road and jumping a levee, galloping through the grove where the last moonlight falls in dusty rain.
“Este vez llegue a tiempo [This time I arrive in time]—Como te prometí [As I promised you]—”
A one-story house freshly painted too-bright pink fronts a park of English walnuts with thick trunks whitewashed against crown gall. A white peacock struts stiffly along the open porch, dragging its tail past a grilled door and row of barred windows. At the steps, a pair of chocolate Doberman Pinschers waits alertly on their haunches, heads tilted as they watch the road.
Now It’s Morning in America! a blazing red, white and blue placard announces from the yard’s sudden island of sun as the walnut leaves flame yellow, the pink porch leaps crimson, and the golden peacock shrieks to its mate.
“Otra vez llego demasiado tarde, siempre tarde, mi querida, mi único amor [Again I’m too late, always late, my darling, my only love]! Joaquin cries under his breath, then whispers: “Ah, lo siento, Belle Solar, lo siento tanto [Ah, I’m sorry, Lovely Sun, so sorry]—”
Across the street, an awakened glowing structure—Un castillo secreto en nubes verdes [A secret castle in green clouds], Joaquin thinks—peers from the branches of an enormous elm. Great upward-reaching limbs spread above the white house, throwing shade over half its roof and wide lawn.
The sunlight explodes all around him on leaf and sparkling sand and the milky horse glides swiftly under the tree into dappled morning shadow, now turning dense with arriving late afternoon.
Shouldering a century and a half of loss like an iron cape, Joaquin yearns toward the new home of his old love, the ravished Belle Solar, until midnight when he’ll wake beside a fire’s ghost above the Kings River Canyon.
“Yes, Joaquin. Hurry. The white men are here.”
Quickly he mounts Rey Blanco to race through death’s shadows toward love’s reunion, to meet in a dream cast by a book in a stranger’s open hands, to resume at last the lovers’ interrupted story.
Editor’s Note: Joaquin Murrieta was a Mexican bandit who turned to crime (during the California Gold Rush) after his wife was raped and his property stolen. Murrieta’s legend was recorded in a dime novel and may have inspired the creation of Zorro.
All-Inclusive Vacation for Pessimists
By Ashley Memory
If you’re a pessimist, you’ve probably avoided treating yourself to a vacation in paradise because it seems as if there’s little that can go wrong, right? Think again. Just for you, the one who takes pleasure in imagining the absolute worst and watching it come true, your friends at the I Told You So Institute (ITYSI) have designed the perfect vacation. Everything that can go wrong sure will or we’ll refund your money.
For just $1,250 per person, enjoy an all-inclusive five-night stay for two adults and up to three children in a two-bedroom ocean view suite at beautiful Villa del Paraíso in Cancun, Mexico. This low price includes airfare, ground transportation, all meals, snacks, beverages (yes, even alcohol), unlimited use of resort equipment, and free excursions to area attractions. Located on the famed Yucatan Peninsula along the shores of the Caribbean Sea, the five-star Mediterranean-style Villa del Paraíso is the kind of place you thought that only celebrities could afford. Sophisticated and elegant with stunning views, each suite also features a fully equipped kitchen and a hot tub.
“As soon as I walked into our suite, I was instantly depressed because I couldn’t help thinking of the dump I’d be returning to back home. Yes, I would have loved to let my cares float away in the hot tub but Clementine and the twins immediately jumped in and claimed it as their personal wave pool. With all the ruckus in the room, I had no choice but to sequester myself in the bathroom just to get some peace and quiet. I could have done that at home.” —Gwendolyn Quattlebaum, Oakridge, Tennessee
Cancun is famous for its virgin white beaches and turquoise waters. We offer complimentary lounge chairs, towels and umbrellas that you may use free of charge for a day at the beach. If water sports are your thing, help yourself to state-of-the-art snorkel gear or dive equipment and go on one of five daily expeditions that leave from the hotel marina every hour on the hour. And if this isn’t enough adventure for you, take advantage of excursions for parasailing, swimming with the dolphins, or exploring local Mayan ruins and more!
“There is no way that water could be that blue without chemicals. I’m convinced that the staff at Villa del Paraíso drops some sort of tablets into the water and pours bleach on the sand every night. And while I know they mean well by providing such a wide variety of excursions, it was too much for our family. Just when Casper and Culbertson agreed to swim with the dolphins, they changed their minds when they saw the bus leave for the zip-line adventure. We spent most of our time here alternatively bickering and then sulking. We won’t forget this vacation any time soon.” —Veronica and Andrew Petty, Savannah, Georgia
You may eat your meals within the sanctity of your private suite or opt to dine in the main restaurant with the other guests, who will be eager to get to know you. Enjoy a 24-hour buffet with hot and cold dishes or order special entrées from a tempting menu that includes porterhouse steak, loin of pork and chicken roasted in a wood-fired oven. Those of you with a sweet tooth will relish our roving dessert cart, which offers crème brûlée, bread pudding topped with bananas foster, and triple-decker tiramisu, just to name a few. Leave the diet at home!
“Yeah, the food was tasty all right and there was plenty of it. But after three days of stuffing myself, I felt like a bloated whale. To make matters worse, my wife kept poking my belly and telling me that it served me right because I always overdo it. I then pointed out that I was getting motion sickness watching her saddlebags jiggle while she shook the sand out of her towel. Don’t get me wrong. Neither of us expected a second honeymoon. We’re just lucky we didn’t kill each other.” —Bernie Dunlow, Dayton, Ohio
The Villa del Paraíso staff has innumerable talents but they share one common goal, and it is to satisfy your every whim. Whether you’re craving a midnight snack or want to share champagne on your balcony, just pick up the phone and dial “0.” Need your pants or dress ironed before dinner? No problem! Need a babysitter so you can enjoy a night of romance with your sweetie? Absolutely! Whatever we can do for you we will and we will do with it with a smile or your next visit is perfectly free.
“I can’t believe I’m actually saying this but the staff was too accommodating. Their sunny demeanor goaded me to no end. I purposefully threw a hissy fit more than once because I wanted to see if they were real human beings. When my waiter only laughed after I threw my wine in his face, it made me want to work that much harder to make him mad, which became an obsession for me. I will definitely come back! Thanks, Villa del Paraíso!” —Chuck Killjoy, Dover, Delaware
In the end, if you didn’t find fault with Villa del Paraíso, it’s simply because your five days ended too soon and you had to go back home. But we do our best to make even your departure unpleasant by mis-packing your belongings and loading your bags into the wrong airport shuttle. Don’t worry, we won’t waste your time by hosting one of those awkward little bon voyage parties. We would hate for you to miss your flight. (Although that would be icing on the absolute-worst-ever-going-wrong memory for you!) But that doesn’t mean the Villa del Paraíso staff won’t be crying to see you go. We’ll be (less than) heartbroken but we’ll somehow summon the strength to gather as a group in the lobby to hold the door open and blow kisses on your way out, declaring, See you next year!
LIFE OF NIGHT
By Perry McDaid
Friendless because it was that sort of society which skipped children whose parents found better things to do with their money than spend on MMORPG devices and credit for social sites, Sean had kicked his football around his garden until the sight of him had bothered those preparing for their Saturday get together.
“Go’on down the street and play with your friends,” his father had urged, assuming that child dynamics worked the same way it had when he was young. He’d passed some kids in the car on his way back from signing at the DSA office.
Sean didn’t even bother to glare. This routine had been played out so many times that he no longer had the emotional energy to be frustrated. He silently lifted the ball and dragged his feet down the middle of the sweeping road, not even bothering to keep an eye on traffic.
The eleven o’clock dimness was soaking in the essence of the deeper night, and clouds were gathering to lend a hand. Sean ignored the glower of a taxi man as he swerved to avoid the boy. The toot of the horn only cracked the gathering quiet on a temporary basis.
Sean headed for the poorly placed parking space for a house on the bend of the main estate road: an afterthought by a lazy architect with more notion of the aesthetic than the pragmatic. The crowd was long gone: some lassoed by caring parents; some to the nearby park—closed for the night, but still accessible to the innovative tween.
He dropped the ball and pinned it perfectly on the bounce; the impact on the low brick wall resounding through the cochlear estate. The rebound narrowly missed another car. Sean didn’t bother to note if it were a taxi or a neighbour. He waited out the scolding and for the driver to move on; then walked to where his ball had rolled, retrieved it and repeated the procedure.
Chased at midnight because the neighbours opposite had had enough of the constant echoing banging which reverberated right through their supposedly sound-proof double glazing to ruin any notion of sleep, or late night television, Sean mumbled something incoherent even to himself, lifted the ball and headed towards the mouth of the estate: away from his home. He didn’t hear the annoyed homeowner call him a “Bloody vampire”, so didn’t wonder at the reference.
He threw the ball into a pensioner’s garden he knew to be too timid to object or even move the ball, and walked to the electric box, reaching into the space between it and the park security fence to retrieve the stash he had been steadily ferreting away since last week in a mud covered plastic bag so as not to attract attention.
He could hear the rest of neglected ones whispering on the night air: the girls sometimes giggling; sometimes uttering excited squeals. He dipped his hand into the bag as he walked towards the access point, half-extracting the bottles of fizzy sugar drink and roll of foil-encased soluble pain-killers which mixed so well.
His decoding of the sounds from the hidden social group told him that this was the perfect time to arrive. Tucking his contributions away, he tied the bag into a knot and lobbed it over.
Smiling for the first time that day, he braced his back against the lamppost and walked up the eight-foot security fence until he could comfortably push off and merely step onto the fence to drop beyond and into the life of night.
By Jacqueline Masumian
The first time Sunny noticed the man was a Friday in late September as she walked her little dog along Winding Lane. She caught sight of him when the dog stopped to sniff a mailbox post and she happened to glance back. He was standing about a hundred feet away staring at her. Black jeans, black tennis shoes, and one of those black hoodies young people like to wear that hid his face from view.
As she and the dog moved on, so did he, staying always the same distance behind. He sauntered, swaggering like the thugs she saw on TV. Whatever was he doing in this neighborhood, she wondered. Every time she and the dog stopped, he stopped also. When they turned left onto Old Farmers Road, she lost sight of him, but later, as they made the loop onto Side Hill, he was there again.
Yanking on the leash, Sunny headed home. She had no money with her, no key, no phone, but his persistent presence had her heart pounding. Every time she glanced back, he was there, following.
By the time she reached her driveway she was nearly running, popping the leash to keep the dog in tow. She looked back once more and there he was, loping along. Then he stopped as she reached her front door. Once inside she thought about calling the police, but what was the dark man doing, really? He was merely walking. The dog hadn’t even barked at him.
The next day he was there again. And the next. He always appeared from nowhere and followed. He never approached her or spoke, but he was ever-present, wearing the same black outfit, ambling along behind her. And so it continued every day as she walked her dog and breathed in the crisp fall air.
One blustery day Sunny chose not to walk the dog. She looked out the drippy windows, and while she did not see him, she could feel the man’s presence, like an invisible ghost hanging on the windowpane, looking in and waiting.
Sunny decided, after much thought on the subject, that her life was too busy to worry about who this stranger was—her days were too full of books and music, friends and activities. Old age has its privileges, and she wasn’t going to miss a one. Why should she care if he followed her? He seemed harmless enough.
And so it went for weeks—the Dark Man (since he seemed to need one, she gave him the name “the Dark Man”) following her and the dog on their daily jaunt. She wondered if this could be considered stalking. But why would a man stalk a woman her age? What did he want? He always stayed the same distance behind. Though, as the days wore on into October and early November, she did notice he followed a few paces closer each day.
Eventually, he became company for her. She realized he’d become part of her daily routine, an almost essential element. She thought about trying to speak to him, to get to know him, but she held back. She was curious, but cautious. Best to keep things as they were, she thought. And so she and the dog and their unlikely friend walked along together day after day.
One afternoon Sunny was feeling reckless. She couldn’t stand it; she had to ask him. After one of their frequent stops along Winding Lane, instead of walking left onto Old Farmers, she turned on her heel, tugging at the dog’s leash, and headed directly back toward the Dark Man. She walked up to him and looked him straight in the eyes, eyes that were deeply hooded.
“Hey, why are you following me? Who are you, anyway?” she said. He was silent and stood his ground. And then she knew.
“Oh, no!” she cried, her hand flying to her mouth, “Oh, no! You? Hah!” And she began to laugh. Right in his face. She laughed so hard, the dog gave her a quizzical look.
“Am I supposed to be afraid of you?” she asked the Dark Man. “Is that it? Hah! No way!” And she laughed and laughed some more, wiping tears from her cheeks. “That’d be silly to be afraid of you. Hey, you can follow me around all you like, but don’t expect me to be afraid!”
The Dark Man, of course, said nothing. But neither did he turn away.
I Don’t Know You Anymore
By Greg Jenkins
I had piles of money, probably too much money, and I could visit the Face Place whenever I wanted.
At first I was circumspect. I opted for a better nose, a more decisive chin; I eliminated the purplish bags beneath my jaded eyes.
But, as people often will, I went a step further. I began to purchase entire new faces, whole new identities. By turns I adopted the meticulously barbered guise of a senator, the wise and sympathetic look of a pastor, the lean haunted visage of a drugged-out rock ’n’ roller.
I might change my appearance once or twice a week. Then once or twice a day. Then a dozen times a day. It was a kick. The technology was superb, and my bank account was more than equal to the challenge.
Zena, of course, was enthusiastic. “I don’t know you anymore,” she’d gush and run her hands all over me, particularly over my latest face. “It’s wonderful!”
Soon enough, however, I was visited by a feeling of boredom and redundancy, and I knew I needed to drive ahead, to attain the next level of (re)invention.
I began to explore looks outside the human paradigm.
At the Face Place I told them I wanted the features of a bird—and not just any bird but a cockatoo, complete with beady eyes, a curved beak and a wild stand-up crest that would bring me a mien of perpetual agitation. My hefty bankbook supported my cause, and almost instantly I was a birdman. Mysterious, exotic.
I moved on to other species. I became an orangutan, a polar bear, a razorback hog. With a nod to The Beatles I became a walrus.
Even at this I felt a sense of being balked and restricted, and now I began to step outside the tame world of mere mammals. I became a snake, a lizard, and, in what I considered perhaps my grandest move, a sea anemone, with a cluster of pale translucent tentacles floating about my toothless mouth. I confess I felt a thrill when the tentacles quivered in the breeze.
Zena was enraptured. “I don’t know you anymore,” she gushed. Her hands roamed all over me. “It’s wonderful!”
Alas, I still wasn’t convinced I’d found it, the sheer specialness I’d been searching for in a face.
I reflected. It was stately sums of money, a royal plenitude, that had allowed my little spree to occur, and I felt I should steer myself in a direction that would accent my lofty status.
I wanted a face that would epitomize society’s highest rank. A face that exuded wealth and class, yet was kindhearted, empathetic, just and sincere.
Abruptly I returned to the Face Place and became Queen Elizabeth.
Zena had her doubts. “I don’t know you anymore,” she said. Her hands stayed put.
The mulish response somehow pleased me. I felt a measure of peace. I owned the exalted face of Queen Elizabeth, and it was good, it was right.
It was wonderful.
By Karen Levy
Last week, he took off his undershirt when he got into bed and I saw a smear of something on his back. I reached to wipe it away but it stayed, neat and permanent. Another woman’s name tattooed right there.
When? I wanted to ask. Why? But my mouth was dry.
He didn’t pull away. He didn’t explain.
I got up from the bed. I wanted to scream and throw things and beat him with my fists, but I didn’t. I put on my clothes.
He’d said he loved me but he’d tattooed another woman’s name on his skin.
He watched from the bed and said nothing.
I left the motel room and went home to my husband. He was on the sofa, watching sports.
I sat down next to him and cried softly.
I’m so sad, I said.
He put his arm around me and pulled me close. Forget it, he said, let’s watch the game.
By Anna O’Brien
Professor Cecil Eriksson clasps his large, callused hands behind his back as he gazes out the window toward the bay.
“Dear colleagues,” he says in a voice so quiet and without his usual boyish enthusiasm that the lunch crowd behind him immediately hushes. “Although I am officially here today to tell you of my latest discovery of two previously unknown kelp species—” a slightly upward lilt betrays his hidden pride,“—I am truly here to announce my retirement.”
The scientists rustle in their chairs, pausing in their almost synchronous chewing of the halibut filets. Did they hear him correctly? Professor Cecil Eriksson, father of the Eriksson method for carbon dating Mesozoic substrata? Discoverer of not one but two sub-species of Arctic zooplankton? Curator of the second largest sea star collection on the planet?
Dr. Hallssonar, better known for her ability to keep her somewhat green complexion in check than her breakthrough study on the sexual dimorphism of the paddleworm, recalls the Professor’s sense of youthful adventure.
“Dear colleagues!” he’d call out at previous meetings. “Let’s climb that ragged butte over there after lunch. I’ve heard from the peak you can spy mermaids!”
A previous intern of the Professor’s, Dr. Gunnarsson recollects fondly the time he and the Professor calculated the retreat of a glacier while being stalked by a polar bear.
“Dear colleague,” the Professor whispered as Dr. Gunnarsson raised a shaky rifle at the hulking white mass trundling toward them. “The mother ship cares more about the loss of a rare bear than the loss of a researcher.”
Basically, he had mapped the entire country. Perhaps that was what triggered retirement—had all of Iceland finally been dissected and catalogued?
The audience watches as the Professor continues to gaze out the window. The yellow afternoon sun warms the reflection off the water and bathes everyone in a favorable light. Then someone sees the Professor begin to drip. A puddle of viscous fluid starts to gather on the tile next to his right shoe.
Now they have their reason.
“Dear colleagues,” repeats the Professor. “It has become obvious I’ve overstayed my welcome.” He turns from the window to face his audience, looking so morose in his smart gray suit and round glasses that the entire room sighs in utmost empathy.
“It’s time for me to go home.” The Professor walks out of the luncheon but not before discreetly putting a white napkin over the puddle he has created on the floor. Green goo bleeds slowly through the cloth.
At a back table, Dr. Gunnarsson sits confused. “Well, don’t we all have our problems?” he says, slipping a green tentacle from behind him to scratch his own back.
“Put that thing away before the waiter sees,” snaps Dr. Hallssonar, growing greener by the second and hastily applying mounds of powder to her face. “We’re on our own now.” She licks her lips, eyeing the luncheon staff. “Maybe now we’ll get away with eating them.”