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More short writing pieces

When I facilitated a writing class at the Roarke Center in downtown Troy I posed the question: ‘How would it feel to be young again?’

Here is my answer.

It depends upon how young? I always say I would never want to be in my 20’s again even though my health was the best then and I was fearless and inquisitive and knew everything about life there was to know. The downside was the uncertainty of where my life was headed, the heartaches over devastating breakups, the worry about how I dressed, talked, wore my hair. I was always worried about what others thought of me – ugh!

My childhood was pretty great. It was fun growing up on a farm with animals, a pond with a raft on it, the woods to play in. We all had chores to do but when they were done life was carefree.

As I grow older I look back with fondness on days gone by.

I think with nostalgia of being 60 again.

 

Another short fiction topic we wrote about was: ‘Who was Dorian Gray?’

My answer:

Dorian Gray was the penultimate ‘bad boy.’ He cared naught but for the pursuit of his own pleasure. It was an exciting, fun-filled life, in the beginning at least. With no purpose to his existence other than seeking what pleased him in the moment, Dorian’s life was losing its ‘punch.’

He had to keep seeking new ways to feel excited: drugs, alcohol, visiting brothels, dating stage actresses with questionable reputations and finally having his portrait painted by a famous artist so he could stare lovingly at his young, handsome countenance.

But, as inevitably happens, life caught up with Dorian. He aged. The young starlets no longer found him handsome and alluring. The drugs and alcohol ravaged  his face and body and finally his very soul. Even his painted self gazed back at him with dark circles under his eyes and sunken cheeks.

He killed the artist thinking it was he who made him look ugly. He killed the actress who no longer found him handsome. With each murder he became less and less human and more crazy.

Finally, he sought to end his anguished, downward slide by plunging a knife into the offending portrait thinking he would then return to his youthful self. However, the knife struck the solid steel frame, flipped end over end and stuck into his own chest.

As he lay dying in a puddle of melting ice cream he hit on his way down to the floor, his portrait-self wagged a finger at him and admonished:

‘Bad boy. You got your just desserts.’

 

Flash Fiction

In July 2019 I attended a Women’s Writing Retreat at Pyramid Life Center for a few serene, pristine, delightfully free-ing days in the Adirondacks.

A group of women writers, singers, performers, playwrights, educators, yoga and Tai Chi instructors, gathered together to share experiences and learn new ‘techniques of the trade’ in whatever form that took during the week. We shared our stories and songs and poetry each evening.

I took two classes: Art Journaling and learning to write Flash Fiction. The journaling class helped me unleash my creative side in words and form while Flash Fiction was a new genre for me.The idea was to write a complete story including plot, character development, scenes and resolution in 200 words or less! We began by just writing what came into our heads on a subject then spent the rest of the session editing it down and down again.

Following is a short story (although not under 200 words!) and collage I created during the week.

‘Fugue’

She sits at the piano letting her fingers flicker over the keys of ebony and ivory the word pianoforte coming into her mind. A few of the notes combine to sound like something she almost remembers..but no, the Cs,Ds and F sharps float away, unrecognizable, into space.

Her gaze shifts down to her clothes. Pink satin robe cinched tightly over a corset. She hates pink – or thinks she does. As she twirls on the little piano stool she catches sight of a face in the wavy glass of the floor-to-ceiling window. She feels suddenly dizzy and fizzy and is frightened by the image of the auburn-haired woman she does not recognize peering back at her. As she slows her panicky breathing and racing heart the questions come flooding in: ‘Where am I?’ which leads to ‘Who am I?’ which, because of the strangeness of her surroundings, inevitably leads to ‘When am I?’

As these thoughts race and tumble one upon another a young man steps through another floor-to-ceiling window and cries: ‘There you are! I was so worried when you did not return from your walk into town.’

She whispers back, not trusting what her voice will sound like: ‘I lost track of the time and am just recently returned.’

To herself she thinks: Hah! I have lost track of everything – time, place, names – except for Victor here. Ah! his name is Victor!

She does not know who she is to him. Sister, wife, lover? so she treads lightly with her next question. ‘Victor do we have plans this evening?’

‘Oh Emily, my sweet, lovely, disappearing sister, how can you have forgotten we dine with Alistair and Mims at 8?’

Emily gives her head a shake trying to clear her brain of the fuzziness she feels. Who are Alistair and Mims?

Looking around again at the room which is decorated in heavy fabrics and huge gilded picture frames, and at the clothing she and Victor are wearing, she surmises she has awoken from her 2019 stupefying sleep into the world of Edith Wharton.

What was it her 20th century psychiatrist called this ‘time traveling’ she keeps obsessing about each session?

A Fugue state brought on by a traumatic, heart-wrenching event she does not want to remember.

Better to live in the past, in someone else’s present time. Emily’s time.

She rises from the stool and gives safe, reliable Victor her hand.

 

 

Spiral of Time

I have always been fascinated by the theory of ‘time-travel.’ Can this happen? And if it does, how does a person cope with the phenomenon of living in two places at once? How would she keep all the people and places straight in her mind?

During my research I came upon the word ‘fugue’ and looked up its meaning – of which there are a few. They may seem to be very different, but perhaps not. I played a CD of Bach’s Fugues for the Harpsichord while writing and that helped me understand the inter-weavings of time and space through musical notes.

 

Fugue: a musical form consisting of a theme repeated a fifth above or a fourth below the continuing first statement.

Fugue: a dreamlike state in which a person disappears from normal life, travels extensively and loses memory of the previous life. Personality dissociation, a psychotic condition.

Fugue: from Italian/Latin: a running away or flight from

Weaving these various meanings of the word ‘fugue’ together I have written the following short story – the ending of which leaves the window open for my main character’s further travels through time.

 

Spiral of Time

 

She sits at the

pian0-forte

letting the fingers of

her right hand

flicker over the keys

of ebony and ivory.

Occasionally, a few

of the notes

sound like something she

almost

remembers…..

 

The melody is

just beyond

her           reach.

 

Almost has it….

but no,

it is gone again

 

the Cs and Ds and F-sharps

 

f  l  o  a  t  i  n  g   a w  a  y

into

space

 

past the edges of the blank page

that is

her

past.

 

Her gaze lowers to see

herself

seated upon

a velvet cushion

that spins

counter-clockwise when

she pushes on

the carpeted floor with

her satin-slippered foot

to give herself the exact

height she needs to

place her fingers upon

the keys and position her small foot

on the pedal

just          so….

Piano-forte , she thinks,

what a lovely name

for a musical instrument.

soft-loud

or

whisper-shout

or

muted-strong.

Opposites  waiting, breathless,

to make a pleasing collaboration

of sounds……

 

She runs her fingers

over the keys

made from

elephant tusks

and loses herself

in thoughts of

those mighty creatures

hunted down

to make these keys

under her slender hands.

 

While musing thus

on these thoughts

and others

her foot swivels

the velvet stool towards

the floor-to-ceiling window where

her reflection catches her

unaware

she stares

in surprise and not a little fright

at the wavy, muted form and

stands straight up.

 

She feels

dizzy

and

fizzy

puts her hand on  the

window glass

to steady herself.

Thoughts and images

come in

roiling

and

coiling

tripping over

one another

in their haste

to fill her

brain.

She peers closer

at the

reflection

still wavy in

the glass

and sees she is wearing

a dressing gown

of ivory like

the piano-forte keys

and flowing like

the musical notes

she cannot quite

remember….

 

Her waist is

tightly cinched by a corset

the gown’s sleeves of lace

falling away when

she stretches her arms

upward to

pat her hair.

Her hair!

swept up atop her head

and

it looks

red!

She pats her hair once more

re-pinning the

escaping tendrils back

behind her ears with

the ivory combs.

 

More elephants sacrificed for me?

 

She straightens and smooths

the dressing gown and

tries to take a deep breath

nearly impossible in this confining corset.

 

She slows her now rapid

shallow breathing and her racing

pulse

 

Okay

 

She feels a bit

calmer now

dreamy in fact and

curious…

 

Where am I?

which leads to

What is my name?

which, because of the

strange way she is dressed,

inevitably leads to

 

When am I?

 

Just as these

thoughts

race and

tumble

upon

one another

a young man

steps over the threshold of

an open floor-to-ceiling

window

at the opposite end

of the room

and cries

‘There you are!’

 

which outburst answers none

of the questions

posed to her reflection

a few moments before.

 

He rushes towards her

grasps her hands

and declares,

‘Where have you been?’

 

(good question, she thinks)

 

‘I was so worried when

you did not return from

your walk into town.’

 

 

Barely trusting her voice

for she does not know

what it will sound like

to him (or to her)

she whispers instead,

‘I lost track of time’

 

How true!

 

He laughs, then,

‘Of course you did, my dear,

and you look quite tired

come sit on the divan

whilst I get you a glass

of cool lemonade.’

 

She sinks, gratefully,

onto the damask-covered sofa

(divan he called it)

and she thinks how

nothing about her surprises him

not her face

nor her dressing gown

nor her voice

nor the fact she was playing

the piano-forte…

All are familiar to him

so names are not needed.

They must know one another

intimately.

 

Unbidden, the melody

overtakes her thoughts

again

the one her fingers were

absent-mindedly

picking out earlier.

The first few notes sing

inside

her head

repeated in higher

tones

then lower

tones,

disjointed, strange,

yet pleasing and

yes, alluring…

 

Her fingers ache

to play the keys once more

but she folds her hands tightly

before her as

Victor steps back into the room

comically balancing two glasses

and a pitcher on a tiny

silver tray.

 

Victor! that is his name….

and she is saved!

    at least for now.

 

‘Here, drink this slowly so

you do not feel faint from

the shock of the cold.”

(only the shock of the cold?)

‘Thank you, Victor, for the drink

and your concern for my

health and well-being.’

He looks at her strangely

perhaps pondering

her formality with him.

Who is he to her?

brother, 

friend,

lover perhaps?

She will have to tread lightly

and ask questions

that are leading

yet

not so as to arouse

his suspicions as to

her current mental state (which is what?)

 

Boldly she asks, ‘Victor, do we have plans for

this evening? I have quite forgotten whether

we are dining in or elsewhere.’

 

‘Oh, my love,

my sweet Emily,

how can you have forgotten?’

 

 

Borderlines

My next step will take me as far away from home as I have ever been even though, when I turn my head, I can still see my mud and grass hut and hear the chickens in my yard.

I can hear what is left of my family crying, just like my little sister whose hand I hold tightly, is crying.

‘Shh…little sister, shh….’ I croon. Later my soothing voice will turn harsh and my hand that caresses her little fingers will become a vise over her twisted mouth.

But for now we are merely strolling along the forest path looking for all the world like two sisters on our way to pick some fruit or find scraps of firewood that have become scarcer and scarcer in our village. We live in a forest but the wood from these trees is not good for burning, producing only smoke and ash in our fire pits. There is barely any food to cook anyway and water has become too precious for washing. We take sips throughout the day from the one bucket we have hauled from the muddy river.

The soldiers have passed this way many times in the past months taking all but two scrawny chickens we hid in the forest, our wilting vegetables, most of our buckets for carrying water from the river far away, and our men.

The first soldiers, who wore red arm bands, took my qajaw. No matter how much my chuch(we used the K’iche’ Indian names for father-qajaw and mother-chuch in my village), her chuch, my little sister and I begged and cried and beat at the soldiers with our fists, he was dragged away into the forest and we never saw him again.

Then the soldiers with black arm bands came and gave my brothers, 15 years old and 10 years old, sugar cane sticks and guns and took them away with the other young boys of my village. The last I saw of them, my older brother was marching away proudly cradling his gun. My little brother was crying, dragging the heavy weapon through the dirt and peeking at me over his shoulder while sucking on the sugar cane stick. The old men, like my chuch’s qajaw, were shot and thrown into a shallow ditch.

Two days later my chuch and her chuch had a plan all worked out for sending me and my little sister ‘North’ to a place called America, to safety. It was a grand plan while they were talking about it, but in reality, how could we do this? Two young girls, me 13, my sister 6, walking away from everything and everyone we had ever known to go into the unknown ‘North.’

We would have to walk by night and rest during the heat of the day under cover of trees and tall grasses. My chuch’s chuch told me how to find water and which fruits and plants were safe to eat and how to spot a snake or spider hiding in the fruit ready to bite us. We had to leave the village as if we were taking a walk with nothing but the clothes on our backs and a small sack with nuts, seeds and one bottle of water in it. We had to be very careful to look casual as there were spies everywhere nowadays. With all the men dead or taken away, the women had resorted to watching one another very closely for any indication of collaboration with either the red or black arm-banded soldiers. They wanted their men and boys back and some would do almost anything to achieve this. Spying became commonplace.

I am 13 so I know some things about life. I know I better not be caught by either group of soldiers, whether my brothers are with them or not. They are hungry and exhausted and some have a crazy look in their eyes. My 6 year old sister is not safe from their physical demands, nor is my chuch, nor her chuch. Young or old these soldiers want females to have sex with. We must flee while we can.

So, as the sun gets lower in the sky, my little sister and I walk as casually, but purposefully, as we can away from our hut. We wave goodbye to our chuch and I yell, ‘See you for supper!’ so everyone can hear me and think we will be back soon after gathering fire wood in the forest for cooking our meager supper. My little sister says nothing. She has not spoken since our qajaw was beaten and dragged away, our brothers lured away with sugar cane and guns and our chuch’s qajaw shot in front of our eyes and thrown away like garbage. I don’t know if she will ever speak again. Her thumb, firmly planted in her mouth, looks like a cork stopping up a clay jug used for saving the bones of our dear, dead ancestors. She is sealed and silent as the grave.

I wipe the tears from her cheeks and start to sing a song she liked as a baby and swing her arm as we walk away into the forest.

I used to love to walk here when my older brother was still playing games with me. I would hide in all sorts of crazy places while he ran around shouting my name, all the while knowing exactly where I was. I could not stop myself from giggling. He would creep up behind me as I hid under an elephant grass leaf, tap me on the shoulder, then roll in the dirt laughing while I shrieked.

But today there is no laughter. We are walking off the beaten path so we can hide quickly if anyone comes along, but this is not a game.

I imagine I hear footsteps behind us all the time and am constantly pulling my little sister under a fern or behind a banana tree. I quickly realize we did not wear the proper clothes and shoes for this journey to the mysterious ‘North.’ We have on shorts, white t-shirts and white canvas sneakers. They are our best clothes as far as having no holes in them, but white can be easily spotted amongst the green leaves and grasses. I take off my t-shirt and sneakers and make my little sister do the same. I roll them in the dirt and tell her we are now wearing camouflage outfits like our brothers, the new soldiers.

She smiles a tiny smile around her thumb, the first in weeks. I pick up long sticks to use as our ‘guns’ to frighten off snakes and lizards. I also use mine to knock down a small bunch of green bananas and then whack them to make sure there are no snakes or spiders wrapped up inside. We have food for this evening.

As we walk along I begin to think of our journey in terms of ‘borderlines’ to be crossed. If I think too far ahead I might go crazy wondering where we were going, how far to the next village, where is this path taking us?

The first borderline was the doorway at my mud house. That was the hardest one to step over. The next was the border between my village and the road into the forest. The next is up ahead somewhere. My chuch said to keep following the dirt road until I crossed a river that should be shallow enough this time of year to wade through.

We walk on until the sun begins to rise to our right. At least we had been walking north through the night. Soon I will need to find a place for us to hide during the day.

What’s that noise? A branch snapping? Have the villagers realized we did not come back last night and are looking for us?

I pull my little sister deeper into the forest to our left. When I peek out between the ferns I see men and boys with guns and black arm bands. One of the boys turns his head and looks right at me but doesn’t seem to see me. It is our older brother! His eyes look crazy and are rolling around this way and that, his head whipping back and forth, his finger jiggling on the trigger of his gun. I crouch lower, covering my little sister with my body. She starts making strangling noises in her throat and I know a full-fledged scream is not far behind so I clamp my hand hard over her mouth and whisper harshly into her ear, ‘Shut up!’

My brother stops for a moment, then moves on down the road with the others, crazy-eyes looking all around. My little brother is not with him. I wonder what has become of him and why my older brother is still with these soldiers and not protecting the younger one. I can’t think about this now or it will make me crazy, too.

It takes many hours for my little sister to calm down enough to try to sleep this first full day away from our home. It is difficult to get comfortable with the blazing sun overhead and our bellies growling. The little green bananas have probably made us sick. I tell her over and over how sorry I am for hurting her, but we have to stay absolutely silent. Even our beloved older brother is an enemy to us now. Finally we sleep. Fitfully, but we manage to sleep the day away.

Darkness descends like a blanket as the almost full moon rises in the east. We have enough light to find some dewdrops captured in the leaves of low-hanging branches to quench our thirst. Our bellies are still grumbling, but my little sister does not complain, just corks her mouth up with her thumb after sipping the dewdrops. I am determined to save the things in my bag until we really need them.

How much worse will things get?

We walk all night by the light of the moon and stars. I sing songs and tell stories aloud of things I remember of our life in the village. My little sister stumbles a few times and I know I will have to carry her soon. When she stops dead in her tracks I hoist her onto my right hip. Quite soon I have to switch her to my left hip, then straddle her thin legs across my lower back. She takes her thumb out of her mouth to hold onto my neck but once she finds her balance, corks it back in.

Just before daybreak the river appears before us. I can hear the rushing water and realize we are not going to be able to wade across like my chuch assured us would happen. We might even need a boat.

Along the bank of the river are many other people. Mostly children, like us. Mostly girls, like us. Where have they all come from? We have seen no one the past day and a half. Only the soldiers, our crazy-eyed brother and a few screeching monkeys.

We all stand in a line looking at the rushing water as the sun sets to our left. We are probably all thinking the same thing.

Now what do we do?

 One taller girl points across the river and says: ‘Mexico.’

That’s where we were headed? Mexico? My chuch kept saying ‘North’ to America. But Mexico is in the way?’ How big is Mexico?

Some of the girls step into the water and when it does not sweep them away I run in with my little sister and we wash ourselves and our clothes as best we can. Our white t-shirts and sneakers are permanently brown now but they no longer smell so bad. I find a soap plant near the river bank and wash my little sister’s hair and mine so we smell and look a little better also.

We are shy with the others at first and not everyone speaks the exact same language, but we are together now, a force of 20 girls. We share our horror stories of fathers and grandfathers being beaten and killed, brothers taken away by soldiers, mothers and aunts raped. Some of these girls had been raped by the soldiers too. I pray my older brother has not been a part of that, or the killing either, but remembering his crazy eyes I can no longer be sure he is the same innocent boy I knew and loved. He has crossed over a borderline of his own.

 

As we sit shivering in the dark a large raft appears in the river, two men pushing it with long poles. They yell to us.

‘We are friends. We will help you cross this river.’

What can we do but nod ‘OK’ and step aboard.

Another borderline is crossed. The river that takes us into Mexico.

What lay ahead for us in this desert land?

I hold my little sister tightly against my chest. I am terrified this boat with no sides will roll over and dump us all into the river. We will drown and our chuch and her chuch will never know what has happened to us. Were we safe in America? Were we in school? Were we living with a nice family who would send for them next year? Or…did we die on the road, no one knowing who we were?

The raft bumps roughly into the opposite bank and presto! we are in another country. The two men do not ask for money which is a good thing since we have none.

Why are they helping us, then?

A big truck is waiting by some trees and we all climb inside. Again, what else can we do? I hand my little sister up to another girl we met on the raft, pull myself up and sprawl on the hot metal floor. The back door slides down with a clang as the sun comes up on day three.

We are encased in darkness once again only with no moon or stars to give some light and guidance. I try to sing a song but my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth. I hear the word ‘mama’ whispered in the darkness. It is the first word my little sister has said in over a week. I hold her tightly, choke out “Adios, Guatemala” and weep.

I would have said ‘Hola!’ to Mexico but we never saw it. We sat or lay down on the hot metal floor, or leaned against one another for comfort for many, many hours. The air became thick with whispers, sobs, body odor and other smells.

The man who drives the truck pulls to the side of the road once to let us out to relieve ourselves in the dark and stretch a little. But in ten minutes we are shoved back into the truck and told to stay quiet. We don’t need this reminder. More long, hot hours slide by.

 

Another borderline to cross:

The truck stops and I can hear a gate going up. Someone is knocking a stick or gun against the sides of the truck. Men’s voices argue back and forth. No one opens the back door. The truck starts up again after a few more minutes and we all let our breath out in one big ‘whoosh.’ We stay tense and alert. Anything can happen as we cross this border.

 

My little sister is feverish. All we have eaten are the seeds and nuts I saved in my bag and sips of hot water from the plastic bottle. She is too weak to cry but her thumb is still securely corked in her mouth. All the girls are sick in some way.

Will we ever make it ‘North’ to America alive?

 
The truck slows down to a full stop. Has a day gone by? Two? The back door slides up. The bright sun hurts our eyes. I jump down and my little sister is handed to me. She winds her thin legs around my waist as I hoist her onto my sore right hip. The driver of the truck says simply, ‘America.’

We made it! We are alive and in the ‘North.’ In America! I feel sad that the rest of my family cannot share this joyous moment, but so happy to be here! I think of all the things that will be possible for me and my little sister now. We will be free of hunger and the extreme poverty of our village. We will no longer have to fear the soldiers with their red bands or black bands and guns pointed at our heads. We will be free to go to school and get a job at a magical place called ‘Walmarts.’ We will send for our chuch and her chuch next year and have them live with us in a brick house on a street lined with trees. We will find my brothers somehow and bring them over too. Maybe we will have a cat and a dog.

I hear cheering voices and see flags and signs fluttering in the hot breeze. The people of this place are excited to see us, are welcoming us to America. I never expected such a wonderful thing!

I turn to the driver of our truck and ask him to translate these words of welcome. The voices are rising as one now, the banners held higher.

He looks at me with pity.

“They are saying, ‘Go home! Back to Mexico! Go home!’”

I look closer at these people. I see now that their faces are angry. They are shaking their fists at us. One man has a gun pointed at us.

I say to the driver, ‘But we’re from Guatemala. If we go back home we will be killed or worse! We’re Guatemalan, not Mexican, so we can stay, right?’

He shrugs his shoulders as if to say, ‘Who knows?’

 

Last borderline:

The crack in my broken heart.